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Most of the papers included in this volume have already appeared in one
or another of the following magazines: _The Atlantic Monthly_, _The
Dial_, _The New Republic_, _The Seven Arts_, _The Yale Review_, _The
Columbia University Quarterly_, and are reprinted here with the kind
permission of the editors.
Bitter-sweet, and a northwest wind
To sing his requiem,
Who was
Our Age,
And who becomes
An imperishable symbol of our ongoing,
For in himself
He rose above his body and came among us
Prophetic of the race,
The great hater
Of the dark human deformity
Which is our dying world,
The great lover
Of the spirit of youth
Which is our futures seed....
JAMES OPPENHEIM.
Randolph Bourne was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey, May 30, 1886.
He died in New York, December 22, 1918. Between these two dates was
packed one of the fullest, richest, and most significant lives of the
younger generation. Its outward events can be summarized in a few
words. Bourne went to the public schools in his native town, and then
for some time earned his living as an assistant to a manufacturer of
automatic piano music. In 1909 he entered Columbia, graduating in 1913
as holder of the Gilder Fellowship, which enabled him to spend a year
of study and investigation in Europe. In 1911 he had begun contributing
to _The Atlantic Monthly_, and his first book, “Youth and Life,” a
volume of essays, appeared in 1913. He was a member of the contributing
staff of _The New Republic_ during its first three years; later he
was a contributing editor of _The Seven Arts_ and _The Dial_. He had
published, in addition to his first collection of essays and a large
number of miscellaneous articles and book reviews, two other books,
“Education and Living” and “The Gary Schools.” At the time of his death
he was engaged on a novel and a study of the political future.
It might be guessed from this that Bourne at thirty-two had not quite
found himself. His interests were indeed almost universal: he had
written on politics, economics, philosophy, education, literature. No
other of our younger critics had cast so wide a net, and Bourne had
hardly begun to draw the strings and count and sort his catch. He was
a working journalist, a literary freelance with connections often of
the most precarious kind, who contrived, by daily miracles of audacity
and courage, to keep himself serenely afloat in a society where his
convictions prevented him from following any of the ordinary avenues
of preferment and recognition. It was a feat never to be sufficiently
marvelled over; it would have been striking, in our twentieth century
New York, even in the case of a man who was not physically handicapped
as Bourne was. But such a life is inevitably scattering, and it was
only after the war had literally driven him in upon himself that he set
to work at the systematic harvesting of his thoughts and experiences.
He had not quite found himself, perhaps, owing to the extraordinary
range of interests for which he had to find a personal common
denominator; yet no other young American critic, I think, had exhibited
so clear a tendency, so coherent a body of desires. His personality
was not only unique, it was also absolutely expressive. I have had the
delightful experience of reading through at a sitting, so to say, the
whole mass of his uncollected writings, articles, essays, book reviews,
unprinted fragments, and a few letters, and I am astonished at the
way in which, like a ball of camphor in a trunk, the pungent savor of
the man spreads itself over every paragraph. Here was no anonymous
reviewer, no mere brilliant satellite of the radical movement losing
himself in his immediate reactions: one finds everywhere, interwoven in
the fabric of his work, the silver thread of a personal philosophy, the
singing line of an intense and beautiful desire.
What was that desire? It was for a new fellowship in the youth of
America as the principle of a great and revolutionary departure in our
life, a league of youth, one might call it, consciously framed with
the purpose of creating, out of the blind chaos of American society,
a fine, free, articulate cultural order. That, as it seems to me, was
the dominant theme of all his effort, the positive theme to which he
always returned from his thrilling forays into the fields of education
and politics, philosophy and sociology. One finds it at the beginning
of his career in such essays as “Our Cultural Humility,” one finds it
at the end in the “History of a Literary Radical.” One finds it in that
pacifism which he pursued with such an obstinate and lonely courage and
which was the logical outcome of the checking and thwarting of those
currents of thought and feeling in which he had invested the whole
passion of his life. _Place aux jeunes_ might have been his motto: he
seemed indeed the flying wedge of the younger generation itself.
I shall never forget my first meeting with him, that odd little
apparition with his vibrant eyes, his quick, birdlike steps and the
long black students cape he had brought back with him from Paris.
It was in November, 1914, and we never imagined then that the war
was going to be more than a slash, however deep, across the face of
civilization, we never imagined it was going to plough on and on until
it had uprooted and turned under the soil so many green shoots of
hope and desire in the young world. Bourne had published that radiant
book of essays on the Adventure of Life, the Two Generations, the
Excitement of Friendship, with its happy and confident suggestion of
the present as a sort of transparent veil hung up against the window of
some dazzling future, he had had his wanderyear abroad, and had come
home with that indescribable air of the scholar-gypsy, his sensibility
fresh, clairvoyant, matutinal, a philosopher of the _gaya scienza_,
his hammer poised over the rock of American philistinism, with never
a doubt in his heart of the waters of youth imprisoned there. One
divined him in a moment, the fine, mettlesome temper of his intellect,
his curiosity, his acutely critical self-consciousness, his aesthetic
flair, his delicate sense of personal relationships, his toughness
of fiber, his masterly powers of assimilation, his grasp of reality,
his burning convictions, his beautifully precise desires. Here was
Emersons “American scholar” at last, but radiating an infinitely
warmer, profaner, more companionable influence than Emerson had ever
dreamed of, an influence that savored rather of Whitman and William
James. He was the new America incarnate, with that stamp of a sort of
permanent youthfulness on his queer, twisted, appealing face. You felt
that in him the new America had suddenly found itself and was all astir
with the excitement of its first maturity.
His life had prepared him for the rôle, for the physical disability
that had cut him off from the traditional currents and preoccupations
of American life had given him a poignant insight into the predicament
of all those others who, like him, could not adjust themselves to the
industrial machine--the exploited, the sensitive, the despised, the
aspiring, those, in short, to whom a new and very different America
was no academic idea but a necessity so urgent that it had begun to be
a reality. As detached as any young East Sider from the herd-unity of
American life, the colonial tradition, the “genteel tradition,” yet
passionately concerned with America, passionately caring for America,
he had discovered himself at Columbia, where so many strains of the
newer immigrant population meet one another in the full flood and
ferment of modern ideas. Shut in as he had been with himself and his
books, what dreams had passed through his mind of the possibilities of
life, of the range of adventures that are open to the spirit, of some
great collective effort of humanity! Would there never be room for
these things in America, was it not precisely the task of the young to
make room for them? Bournes grandfather and great-grandfather had been
doughty preachers and reformers: he had inherited a certain religious
momentum that thrust him now into the midst of the radical tide. Above
all, he had found companions who helped him to clarify his ideas
and grapple with his aims. Immigrants, many of them, of the second
generation, candidates for the “melting-pot” that had simply failed
to melt them, they trailed with them a dozen rich, diverse racial and
cultural tendencies which America seemed unable either to assimilate or
to suppress. Were they not, these newcomers of the eleventh hour, as
clearly entitled as the first colonials had been to a place in the sun
of the great experimental democracy upon which they were making such
strange new demands? They wanted a freer emotional life, a more vivid
intellectual life; oddly enough, it was they and not the hereditary
Americans, the “people of action,” who spoke of an “American culture”
and demanded it. Bourne had found his natural allies. Intensely
Anglo-Saxon himself, it was America he cared for, not the triumph of
the Anglo-Saxon tradition which had apparently lost itself in the
pursuit of a mechanical efficiency. It was a “trans-national” America
of which he caught glimpses now, a battleground of all the cultures, a
super-culture, that might perhaps, by some happy chance, determine the
future of civilization itself.
It was with some such vision as this that he had gone abroad. If that
super-culture was ever to come it could only be through some prodigious
spiritual organization of the youth of America, some organization
that would have to begin with small and highly self-conscious groups;
these groups, moreover, would have to depend for a long time upon the
experience of young Europe. The very ideas of spiritual leadership,
the intellectual life, the social revolution were foreign to a modern
America that had submitted to the common mould of business enterprise;
even philosophers like Professor Dewey had had to assume a protective
coloration, and when people spoke of art they had to justify it as
an “asset.” For Bourne, therefore, the European tour was something
more than a preparation for his own life: he was like a bird in the
nesting season, gathering twigs and straw for a nest that was not to
be his but young Americas, a nest for which old America would have
to provide the bough! He was in search, in other words, of new ideas,
new attitudes, new techniques, personal and social, for which he was
going to demand recognition at home, and it is this that gives to his
“Impressions of Europe 1913-1914”--his report to Columbia as holder
of the Gilder Fellowship--an actuality that so perfectly survives the
war. Where can one find anything better in the way of social insight
than his pictures of radical France, of the ferment of the young
Italian soul, of the London intellectuals--Sidney Webb, lecturing
“with the patient air of a man expounding arithmetic to backward
children,” Shaw, “clean, straight, clear, and fine as an upland wind
and summer sun,” Chesterton, “gluttonous and thick, with something
tricky and unsavory about him”; of the Scandinavian note,--“one got
a sense in those countries of the most advanced civilization, yet
without sophistication, a luminous modern intelligence that selected
and controlled and did not allow itself to be overwhelmed by the chaos
of twentieth century possibility”? We see things in that white light
only when they have some deeply personal meaning for us, and Bournes
instinct had led him straight to his mark. Two complex impressions
he had gained that were to dominate all his later work. One was
the sense of what a national culture is, of its immense value and
significance as a source and fund of spiritual power even in a young
world committed to a political and economic internationalism. The
other was a keen realization of the almost apostolic rôle of the young
student class in perpetuating, rejuvenating, vivifying and, if need be,
creating this national consciousness. No young Hindu ever went back
to India, no young Persian or Ukrainian or Balkan student ever went
home from a European year with a more fervent sense of the chaos and
spiritual stagnation and backwardness of his own people, of the happy
responsibility laid upon himself and all those other young men and
women who had been touched by the modern spirit.
It was a tremendous moment. Never had we realized so keenly the
spiritual inadequacy of American life: the great war of the cultures
left us literally gasping in the vacuum of our own provincialism,
colonialism, naïveté, and romantic self-complacency. We were in
much the same position as that of the Scandinavian countries during
the European wars of 1866-1870, if we are to accept George Brandes
description of it: “While the intellectual life languished, as a plant
droops in a close, confined place, the people were self-satisfied. They
rested on their laurels and fell into a doze. And while they dozed
they had dreams. The cultivated, and especially the half-cultivated,
public in Denmark and Norway dreamed that they were the salt of Europe.
They dreamed that by their idealism they would regenerate the foreign
nations. They dreamed that they were the free, mighty North, which
would lead the cause of the peoples to victory--and they woke up
unfree, impotent, ignorant.” It was through a great effort of social
introspection that Scandinavia had roused itself from the stupor of
this optimistic idealism, and at last a similar movement was on foot in
America. _The New Republic_ had started with the war, _The Masses_ was
still young, _The Seven Arts_ and the new _Dial_ were on the horizon.
Bourne found himself instantly in touch with the purposes of all these
papers, which spoke of a new class-consciousness, a sort of offensive
and defensive alliance of the younger intelligentsia and the awakened
elements of the labor groups. His audience was awaiting him, and no one
could have been better prepared to take advantage of it.
It was not merely the exigencies of journalism that turned his mind at
first so largely to the problems of primary education. In Professor
Deweys theories, in the Gary Schools, he saw, as he could see it
nowhere else, the definite promise, the actual unfolding of the freer,
more individualistic, and at the same time more communistic social life
of which he dreamed. But even if he had not come to feel a certain
inadequacy in Professor Deweys point of view, I doubt if this field
of interest could have held him long. Children fascinated him; how
well he understood them we can see from his delightful “Ernest: or
Parent for a Day.” But Bournes heart was too insistently involved
in the situation of his own contemporaries, in the stress of their
immediate problems, to allow him to linger in these long hopes. This
young intelligentsia in whose ultimate unity he had had such faith--did
he not see it, moreover, as the war advanced, lapsing, falling apart
again, reverting into the ancestral attitudes of the tribe? Granted the
war, it was the business of these liberals to see that it was played,
as he said, “with insistent care for democratic values at home, and
unequivocal alliance with democratic elements abroad for a peace that
should promise more than a mere union of benevolent imperialisms.”
Instead, the “allure of the martial” passed only to be succeeded by
the “allure of the technical,” and the “prudent, enlightened college
man,” cut in the familiar pattern, took the place of the value-creator,
the path-finder, the seeker of new horizons. Plainly, the younger
generation had not begun to find its own soul, had hardly so much as
registered its will for a new orientation of the American spirit.
Had it not occurred before, this general reversion to type? The
whole first phase of the social movement had spent itself in a sort
of ineffectual beating of the air, and Bourne saw that only through
a far more heroic effort of criticism than had yet been attempted
could the young intelligentsia disentangle itself, prevail against
the mass-fatalism of the middle class, and rouse the workers out of
their blindness and apathy. Fifteen years ago a new breath had blown
over the American scene; people felt that the era of big business had
reached its climacteric, that a new nation was about to be born out
of the social settlements, out of the soil that had been harrowed and
swept by the muck-rakers, out of the spirit of service that animated
a whole new race of novelists, and a vast army of young men and young
women, who felt fluttering in their souls the call to some great
impersonal adventure, went forth to the slums and the factories and
the universities with a powerful but very vague desire to realize
themselves and to “do something” for the world. But one would have
said that movement had been born middle-aged, so earnest, so anxious,
so conscientious, so troubled, so maternal and paternal were the faces
of those young men and women who marched forth with so puzzled an
intrepidity; there was none of the tang and fire of youth in it, none
of the fierce glitter of the intellect; there was no joyous burning
of boats; there were no transfigurations, no ecstasies. There was
only a warm simmer of eager, evangelical sentiment that somehow never
reached the boiling-point and cooled rapidly off again, and that host
of tentative and wistful seekers found themselves as cruelly astray
as the little visionaries of the Childrens Crusade. Was not the
failure of that movement due almost wholly to its lack of critical
equipment? In the first place, it was too naïve and too provincial,
it was outside the main stream of modern activity and desire, it had
none of the reserves of power that result from being in touch with
contemporary developments in other countries. In the second place, it
had no realistic sense of American life: it ignored the facts of the
class struggle, it accepted enthusiastically illusions like that of
the “melting-pot,” it wasted its energy in attacking “bad” business
without realizing that the spirit of business enterprise is itself
the great enemy, it failed to see the need of a consciously organized
intellectual class or to appreciate the necessary conjunction in our
day of the intellectuals and the proletariat. Worst of all, it had no
personal psychology. Those crusaders of the “social consciousness”
were far from being conscious of themselves; they had never broken the
umbilical cord of their hereditary class, they had not discovered their
own individual lines of growth, they had no knowledge of their own
powers, no technique for using them effectively. Embarked in activities
that instantly revealed themselves as futile and fallacious, they
also found their loyalties in perpetual conflict with one another.
Inevitably their zeal waned and their energy ebbed away, and the tides
of uniformity and commercialism swept the American scene once more.
No one had grasped all these elements of the social situation so firmly
as Bourne. He saw that we needed, first, a psychological interpretation
of these younger malcontents, secondly, a realistic study of our
institutional life, and finally, a general opening of the American
mind to the currents of contemporary desire and effort and experiment
abroad. And along each of these lines he did the work of a pioneer.
Who, for example, had ever thought of exploring the soul of the
younger generation as Bourne explored it? He had planned a long
series of literary portraits of its types and personalities: half
a dozen of them exist (along with several of quite a different
character!--the keenest satires we have), enough to show us how
sensitively he responded to those detached, groping, wistful, yet
resolutely independent spirits whom he saw weaving the iridescent
fabric of the future. He who had so early divined the truth of Maurice
Barrès saying, that we never conquer the intellectual suffrages of
those who precede us in life, addressed himself exclusively to these
young spirits: he went out to meet them, he probed their obscurities;
one would have said that he was a sort of impresario gathering the
personnel of some immense orchestra, seeking in each the principle
of his own growth. He had studied his chosen minority with such
instinctive care that everything he wrote came as a personal message to
those, and those alone, who were capable of assimilating it; and that
is why, as we look over his writings to-day, we find them a sort of
corpus, a text full of secret ciphers, and packed with meaning between
the lines, of all the most intimate questions and difficulties and
turns of thought and feeling that make up the soul of young America.
He revealed us to ourselves, he intensified and at the same time
corroborated our desires; above all, he showed us what we had in common
and what new increments of life might arise out of the friction of our
differences. In these portraits he was already doing the work of the
novelist he might well have become,--he left two or three chapters
of a novel he had begun to write, in which “Karen” and “Sophronisba”
and “The Professor” would probably have appeared, along with a whole
battle-array of the older and younger generations; he was sketching
out the rôle some novelist might play in the parturition of the new
America. Everything for analysis, for self-discovery, for articulation,
everything to put the younger generation in possession of itself!
Everything to weave the tissue of a common understanding, to help the
growth and freedom of the spirit! There was something prophetic in
Bournes personality. In his presence one felt, in his writings one
realizes, that the army of youth is already assembling for “the effort
of reason and the adventure of beauty.”
I shall say little of his work as a critic of institutions. It
is enough to point out that if such realistic studies as his
“Trans-National America” and his “Mirror of the Middle West” (a
perfect example, by the way, of his theory of the book review as an
independent enquiry with a central idea of its own), his papers on the
settlements and on sociological fiction had appeared fifteen years
ago, a vastly greater amount of effective energy might have survived
the break-up of the first phase of the social movement. When he showed
what mares-nests the settlements and the “melting-pot” theory and
the “spirit of service” are, and what snares for democracy lie in
Meredith Nicholsons “folksiness,” he closed the gate on half the blind
alleys in which youth had gone astray; and he who had so delighted
in Veblens ruthless condensation of the mystical gases of American
business implied in every line he wrote that there is a gulf fixed
between the young intellectual and the unreformable “system.” The young
intellectual, henceforth, was an unclassed outsider, with a scent
all the more keenly sharpened for new trails because the old trails
were denied him, and for Bourne those new trails led straight, and by
the shortest possible route, to a society the very reverse of ours,
a society such as A.E. has described in the phrase, “democratic in
economics, aristocratic in thought,” to be attained through a coalition
of the thinkers and the workers. The task of the thinkers, of the
intelligentsia, in so far as they concerned themselves directly with
economic problems, was, in Bournes eyes, chiefly to _think_. It was a
new doctrine for American radicals; it precisely denoted their advance
over the evangelicism of fifteen years ago. “The young radical to-day,”
he wrote in one of his reviews, “is not asked to be a martyr, but he is
asked to be a thinker, an intellectual leader.... The labor movement in
this country needs a philosophy, a literature, a constructive socialist
analysis and criticism of industrial relations. Labor will scarcely do
this thinking for itself. Unless middle-class radicalism threshes out
its categories and interpretations and undertakes this constructive
thought it will not be done.... The only way by which middle-class
radicalism can serve is by being fiercely and concentratedly
intellectual.”
Finally, through Bourne more than through any other of our younger
writers one gained a sense of the stir of the great world, of the
currents and cross-currents of the contemporary European spirit,
behind and beneath the war, of the tendencies and experiences and
common aims and bonds of the younger generation everywhere. He was an
exception to what seems to be the general rule, that Americans who
are able to pass outside their own national spirit at all are apt to
fall headlong into the national spirit of some one other country:
they become vehement partisans of Latin Europe, or of England, or of
Germany and Scandinavia, or, more recently, of Russia. Bourne, with
that singular union of detachment and affectionate penetration which
he brought also to his personal relationships, had entered them all
with an equal curiosity, an impartial delight. If he had absorbed the
fine idealism of the English liberals, he understood also the more
elemental, the more emotional, the more positive urge of revolutionary
Russia. He was full of practical suggestions from the vast social and
economic laboratory of modern Germany. He had caught something also
from the intellectual excitement of young Italy; most of all, his
imagination had been captivated, as we can see from such essays as
“Mon Amie,” by the candor and the self-consciousness and the genius
for social introspection of radical France. And all these influences
were perpetually at play in his mind and in his writings. He was the
conductor of innumerable diverse inspirations, a sort of clearing-house
of the best living ideas of the time; through him the young writer and
the young thinker came into instant contact with whatever in the modern
world he most needed. And here again Bourne revealed his central aim.
He reviewed by choice, and with a special passion, what he called the
“epics of youthful talent that grows great with quest and desire.” It
is easy to see, in his articles on such books as “Pelle the Conqueror”
and Gorkys Autobiography and “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists,”
that what lured him was the common struggle and aspiration of youth
and poverty and the creative spirit everywhere, the sense of a new
socialized world groping its way upward. It was this rich ground-note
in all his work that made him, not the critic merely, but the leader.
It is impossible to say, of course, what he would have become if
his life had been spared. The war had immensely stimulated his
“political-mindedness”: he was obsessed, during the last two years of
his life, with a sense of the precariousness of free thought and free
speech in this country; if they were cut off, he foresaw, the whole
enterprise, both of the social revolution and of the new American
culture, would perish of inanition; he felt himself at bay. Would he,
with all the additional provocation of a hopelessly bungled peace
settlement, have continued in the political field, as his unfinished
study on “The State” might suggest? Or would that activity, while
remaining vivid and consistent, have subsided into a second place
behind his more purely cultural interests?
Personally, I like to think that he would have followed this second
course. He speaks in the “History of a Literary Radical” of “living
down the new orthodoxies of propaganda” as he and his friends had lived
down the old orthodoxies of the classics, and I believe that, freed
from the obsessions of the war, his criticism would have concentrated
more and more on the problem of evoking and shaping an American
literature as the nucleus of that rich, vital and independent national
life he had been seeking in so many ways to promote. Who that knew his
talents could have wished it otherwise? Already, except for the poets,
the intellectual energy of the younger generation has been drawn almost
exclusively into political interests; and the new era, which has begun
to draw so sharply the battle-line between radicals and reactionaries,
is certain only to increase this tendency. If our literary criticism
is always impelled sooner or later to become social criticism, it is
certainly because the future of our literature and art depends upon the
wholesale reconstruction of a social life all the elements of which are
as if united in a sort of conspiracy against the growth and freedom of
the spirit: we are in the position described by Ibsen in one of his
letters: “I do not think it is of much use to plead the cause of art
with arguments derived from its own nature, which with us is still so
little understood, or rather so thoroughly misunderstood.... My opinion
is that at the present time it is of no use to wield ones weapons
_for_ art; one must simply turn them _against_ what is hostile to
art.” That is why Bourne, whose ultimate interest was always artistic,
found himself a guerilla fighter along the whole battlefront of the
social revolution. He was drawn into the political arena as a skilful
specialist, called into war service, is drawn into the practice of a
general surgery in which he may indeed accomplish much but at the price
of the suspension of his own uniqueness. Others, at the expiration
of what was for him a critical moment, the moment when all freedom
seemed to be at stake, might have been trusted to do his political
work for him; the whole radical tide was flowing behind him; his
unique function, meanwhile, was not political but spiritual. It was
the creation, the communication of what he called “the allure of fresh
and true ideas, of free speculation, of artistic vigor, of cultural
styles, of intelligence suffused by feeling and feeling given fiber and
outline by intelligence.” Was it not to have been hoped, therefore,
that he would have revived, exemplified among these new revolutionary
conditions, and on behalf of them, the lapsed rôle of the man of
letters?
For if he held a hammer in one hand, he held in the other a
divining-rod. He, if any one, in the days to come, would have
conjured out of our dry soil the green shoots of a beautiful and a
characteristic literature: he knew that soil so well, and why it was
dry, and how it ought to be irrigated! We have had no chart of our
cultural situation to compare with his “History of a Literary Radical,”
and certainly no one has combined with an analytical gift like his,
and an adoration for the instinct of workmanship, so burning an eye
for every stir of life and color on the drab American landscape. I
think of a sentence in one of his reviews: “The appearance of dramatic
imagination in any form in this country is something to make us all
drop our work and run to see.” That was the spirit which animated all
his criticism: is it not the spirit that creates out of the void the
thing it contemplates?
To have known Randolph Bourne is indeed to have surprised some of the
finest secrets of the American future. But those who lived with him in
friendship will remember him for reasons that are far more personal,
and at the same time far more universal, than that: they will remember
him as the wondrous companion, the lyrical intellect, the transparent
idealist, most of all perhaps as the ingenuous and lonely child. It is
said that every writer possesses in his vocabulary one talismanic word
which he repeats again and again, half unconsciously, like a sort of
signature, and which reveals the essential secret of his personality.
In Bournes case the word is “wistful”; and those who accused him
of malice and bitterness, not realizing how instinctively we impute
these qualities to the physically deformed who are so dauntless in
spirit that they repel our pity, would do well to consider that secret
signature, sown like some beautiful wild flower over the meadow of
his writings, which no man can counterfeit, which is indeed the token
of their inviolable sincerity. He was a wanderer, the child of some
nation yet unborn, smitten with an inappeasable nostalgia for the
Beloved Community on the far side of socialism, he carried with him the
intoxicating air of that community, the mysterious aroma of all its
works and ways. “High philosophic thought infused with sensuous love,”
he wrote once, “is not this the one incorrigible dream that clutches
us?” It was the dream he had brought back from the bright future in
which he lived, the dream he summoned us to realize. And it issues now
like a gallant command out of the space left vacant by his passing.
For a man of culture, my friend Miro began his literary career in a
singularly unpromising way. Potential statesmen in log-cabins might
miraculously come in touch with all the great books of the world, but
the days of Miros young school life were passed in innocence of Homer
or Dante or Shakespeare, or any of the other traditional mind-formers
of the race. What Miro had for his nourishment, outside the Bible,
which was a magical book that you must not drop on the floor, or his
school-readers, which were like lightning flashes of unintelligible
scenes, was the literature that his playmates lent him--exploits of
British soldiers in Spain and the Crimea, the death-defying adventures
of young filibusters in Cuba and Nicaragua. Miro gave them a languid
perusing, and did not criticize their literary style. Huckleberry Finn
and Tom Sawyer somehow eluded him until he had finished college, and
no fresher tale of adventure drifted into his complacent home until
the era of “Richard Carvel” and “Janice Meredith” sharpened his wits
and gave him a vague feeling that there was such a thing as literary
art. The classics were stiffly enshrined behind glass doors that were
very hard to open--at least Hawthorne and Irving and Thackeray were
there, and Tennysons and Scotts poems--but nobody ever discussed them
or looked at them. Miros busy elders were taken up with the weekly
_Outlook_ and _Independent_ and _Christian Work_, and felt they were
doing much for Miro when they provided him and his sister with _St.
Nicholas_ and _The Youths Companion_. It was only that Miro saw the
black books looking at him accusingly from the case, and a rudimentary
conscience, slipping easily over from Calvinism to culture, forced
him solemnly to grapple with “The Scarlet Letter” or “Marmion.” All
he remembers is that the writers of these books he browsed among used
a great many words and made a great fuss over shadowy offenses and
conflicts and passions that did not even stimulate his imagination with
sufficient force to cause him to ask his elders what it was all about.
Certainly the filibusters were easier.
At school Miro was early impressed with the vast dignity of the
literary works and names he was compelled to learn. Shakespeare and
Goethe and Dante lifted their plaster heads frowningly above the
teachers, as they perched on shelves about the room. Much was said
of the greatness of literature. But the art of phonetics and the
complications of grammar swamped Miros early school years. It was not
until he reached the High School that literature began really to assume
that sacredness which he had heretofore felt only for Holy Scripture.
His initiation into culture was made almost a religious mystery by the
conscientious and harassed teacher. As the Deadwood Boys and Henty
and David Harum slipped away from Miros soul in the presence of
Miltons “Comus” and Burke “On Conciliation,” a cultural devoutness
was engendered in him that never really died. At first it did not take
Miro beyond the stage where your conscience is strong enough to make
you uncomfortable, but not strong enough to make you do anything about
it. Miro did not actually become an omnivorous reader of great books.
But he was filled with a rich grief that the millions pursued cheap and
vulgar fiction instead of the best that has been thought and said in
the world. Miro indiscriminately bought cheap editions of the English
classics and read them with a certain patient incomprehension.
As for the dead classics, they came to Miro from the hands of his
teachers with a prestige even vaster than the books of his native
tongue. No doubt ever entered his head that four years of Latin and
three years of Greek, an hour a day, were the important preparation he
needed for his future as an American citizen. No doubt ever hurt him
that the world into which he would pass would be a world where, as his
teacher said, Latin and Greek were a solace to the aged, a quickener
of taste, a refreshment after manual labor, and a clue to the general
knowledge of all human things. Miro would as soon have doubted the
rising of the sun as have doubted the wisdom of these serious, puckered
women who had the precious manipulation of his cultural upbringing in
their charge. Miro was a bright, if a rather vague, little boy, and a
fusion of brightness and docility gave him high marks in the school
where we went together.
No one ever doubted that these marks expressed Miros assimilation
of the books we pored over. But he told me later that he had never
really known what he was studying. Cæsar, Virgil, Cicero, Xenophon,
Homer, were veiled and misty experiences to him. His mind was a moving
present, obliterating each day what it had read the day before, and
piercing into a no more comprehended future. He could at no time have
given any intelligible account of Æneass wanderings or what Cicero was
really inveighing against. The Iliad was even more obscure. The only
thing which impressed him deeply was an expurgated passage, which he
looked up somewhere else and found to be about Mars and Venus caught
in the golden bed. Cæsar seemed to be at war, and Xenophon wandering
somewhere in Asia Minor, with about the same lengthiness and hardship
as Miro suffered in reading him. The trouble, Miro thought afterwards,
was that these books were to his mind flickering lights in a vast
jungle of ignorance. He does not remember marvelling at the excessive
dulness of the stories themselves. He plodded his faithful way, using
them as his conscientious teachers did, as exercises in language. He
looked on Virgil and Cicero as essentially problems in disentangling
words which had unaccountably gotten into a bizarre order, and in
recognizing certain rather amusing and ingenious combinations, known as
“constructions.” Why these words took so irritating an order Miro never
knew, but he always connected the problem with those algebraic puzzles
he had elsewhere to unravel. Virgils words were further complicated
by being arranged in lines which one had to “scan.” Miro was pleased
with the rhythm, and there were stanzas that had a roll of their own.
But the inexorable translating that had to go on tore all this fabric
of poetry to pieces. His translations were impeccable, but, as he never
wrote them down, he had never before his eyes the consecutive story.
Translations Miro never saw. He knew that they were implements of
deadly sin that boys used to cheat with. His horror of them was such
as a saint might feel towards a parody of the Bible. Just before Miro
left school, his sister in a younger class began to read a prose
translation of the Odyssey, and Miro remembers the scorn with which he
looked down on so sneaking an entrance into the temple of light. He
knew that not everyone could study Latin and Greek, and he learned to
be proud of his knowledge. When at last he had passed his examinations
for college--his Latin composition and grammar, his syntax and his
sight-reading, and his Greek composition and grammar, his Greek syntax
and sight-reading, and his translation of Gallic battles and Anabatic
frosts, and Didos farewell and Ciceros objurgations--his zealous
rage did not abate. He even insisted on reading the Bucolics, while he
was away on his vacation, and a book or two in the Odyssey. His family
was a little chilled by his studiousness, but he knew well that he was
laying up cultural treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not
corrupt, neither do thieves break in and steal.
Arrived at college, Miro expanded his cultural interests on the
approved lines. He read Horace and Plato, Lysias and Terence,
impartially, with faithful conscience. Horace was the most exciting
because of the parodies that were beginning to appear in the cleverer
newspapers. Miro scarcely knew whether to be amused or shocked at “Odi
Persicos” or “Integer Vitæ” done into current slang. The professors,
mild-mannered men who knew their place and kept it, never mentioned
these impudent adventures, but for Miro it was the first crack in
his Ptolemaic system of reverences. There came a time when his mind
began to feel replete, when this heavy pushing through the opaque
medium of dead language began to fatigue him. He should have been able
to read fluently, but there were always turning up new styles, new
constructions, to plague him. Latin became to him like a constant diet
of beefsteak, and Greek like a constant diet of fine wheaten bread.
They lost their taste. These witty poets and ostentatious orators--what
were they all about? What was their background? Where did they fit
into Miros life? The professors knew some history, but what did that
history mean? Miro found himself surfeited and dissatisfied. He began
to look furtively at translations to get some better English than he
was able to provide. The hair-splittings of Plato began to bore him
when he saw them in crystal-clear English, and not muffled in the
original Greek. His apostasy had begun.
It was not much better in his study of English literature. Miro
was given a huge anthology, a sort of press-clipping bureau of
_belles-lettres_, from Chaucer to Arthur Symons. Under the direction
of a professor who was laying out a career for himself as poet--or
“modern singer,” as he expressed it--the class went briskly through
the centuries sampling their genius and tasting the various literary
flavors. The enterprise reminded Miro of those books of woollen samples
which one looks through when one is to have a suit of clothes made.
But in this case, the student did not even have the pleasure of seeing
the suit of clothes. All that was expected of him, apparently, was
that he should become familiar, from these microscopic pieces, with
the different textures and patterns. The great writers passed before
his mind like figures in a crowded street. There was no time for
preferences. Indeed the professor strove diligently to give each writer
his just due. How was one to appreciate the great thoughts and the
great styles if one began to choose violently between them, or attempt
any discrimination on grounds of their peculiar congeniality for
ones own soul? Criticism had to spurn such subjectivity, scholarship
could not be wilful. The neatly arranged book of “readings,” with its
medicinal doses of inspiration, became the symbol of Miros education.
These early years of college did not deprive Miro of his cultural
loyalty, but they deadened his appetite. Although almost inconceivably
docile, he found himself being bored. He had come from school a
serious boy, with more than a touch of priggishness in him, and a
vague aspiration to be a “man of letters.” He found himself becoming
a collector of literary odds-and-ends. If he did not formulate this
feeling clearly, he at least knew. He found that the literary life was
not as interesting as he had expected. He sought no adventures. When he
wrote, it was graceful lyrics or polite criticisms of William Collins
or Charles Lamb. These canonized saints of culture still held the field
for Miro, however. There was nothing between them and that popular
literature of the day that all good men bemoaned. Classic or popular,
“highbrow” or “lowbrow,” this was the choice, and Miro unquestioningly
took the orthodox heaven. In 1912 the most popular of Miros English
professors had never heard of Galsworthy, and another was creating a
flurry of scandal in the department by recommending Chesterton to his
classes. It would scarcely have been in college that Miro would have
learned of an escape from the closed dichotomy of culture. Bored with
the “classic,” and frozen with horror at the “popular,” his career as
a man of culture must have come to a dragging end if he had not been
suddenly liberated by a chance lecture which he happened to hear while
he was at home for the holidays.
The literary radical who appeared before the Lyceum Club of Miros
village was none other than Professor William Lyon Phelps, and it is
to that evening of cultural audacity Miro thinks he owes all his later
emancipation. The lecturer grappled with the “modern novel,” and tossed
Hardy, Tolstoi, Turgenev, Meredith, even Trollope, into the minds of
the charmed audience with such effect that the virgin shelves of the
village library were ravished for days to come by the eager minds upon
whom these great names dawned for the first time. “Jude the Obscure”
and “Resurrection” were of course kept officially away from the vulgar,
but Miro managed to find “Smoke” and “Virgin Soil” and “Anna Karenina”
and “The Warden” and “A Pair of Blue Eyes” and “The Return of the
Native.” Later at college he explored the forbidden realms. It was as
if some devout and restless saint had suddenly been introduced to the
Apocrypha. A new world was opened to Miro that was neither “classic”
nor “popular,” and yet which came to one under the most unimpeachable
auspices. There was, at first, it is true, an air of illicit adventure
about the enterprise. The lecturer who made himself the missionary of
such vigorous and piquant doctrine had the air of being a heretic, or
at least a boy playing out of school. But Miro himself returned to
college a cultural revolutionist. His orthodoxies crumbled. He did not
try to reconcile the new with the old. He applied pick and dynamite to
the whole structure of the canon. Irony, humor, tragedy, sensuality,
suddenly appeared to him as literary qualities in forms that he could
understand. They were like oxygen to his soul.
If these qualities were in the books he had been reading, he had never
felt them. The expurgated sample-books he had studied had passed too
swiftly over the Elizabethans to give him a sense of their lustiness.
Miro immersed himself voluptuously in the pessimism of Hardy. He fed on
the poignant torture of Tolstoi. While he was reading “Resurrection,”
his class in literature was making an “intensive” study of Tennyson.
It was too much. Miro rose in revolt. He forswore literary courses
forever, dead rituals in which anæmic priests mumbled their trite
critical commentary. Miro did not know that to naughtier critics even
Mr. Phelps might eventually seem a pale and timid Gideon, himself stuck
in moral sloughs. He was grateful enough for that blast of trumpets
which made his own scholastic walls fall down.
The next stage in Miros cultural life was one of frank revolt. He
became as violent as a heretic as he had been docile as a believer.
Modern novels merely started the rift that widened into modern
ideas. The professors were of little use. Indeed, when Miro joined a
group of radicals who had started a new college paper, a relentless
vendetta began with the teachers. Miro and his friends threw over
everything that was mere literature. Social purpose must shine from
any writing that was to rouse their enthusiasm. Literary flavor was
to be permissible only where it made vivid high and revolutionary
thought. Tolstoi became their god, Wells their high priest. Chesterton
infuriated them. They wrote violent assaults upon him which began in
imitation of his cool paradoxicality and ended in incoherent ravings.
There were so many enemies to their new fervor that they scarcely knew
where to begin. There were not only the old tables of stone to destroy,
but there were new and threatening prophets of the eternal verities who
had to be exposed. The nineteenth century which they had studied must
be weeded of its nauseous moralists. The instructors consulted together
how they might put down the revolt, and bring these sinners back to the
faith of cultural scripture.
It was of no avail. In a short time Miro had been converted from an
aspiration for the career of a cultivated “man of letters” to a fiery
zeal for artistic and literary propaganda in the service of radical
ideas. One of the results of this conversion was the discovery that he
really had no standards of critical taste. Miro had been reverential
so long that he had felt no preferences. Everything that was classic
had to be good to him. But now that he had thrown away the books that
were stamped with the mark of the classic mint, and was dealing with
the raw materials of letters, he had to become a critic and make
selection. It was not enough that a book should be radical. Some of
the books he read, though impeccably revolutionary as to ideas, were
clearly poor as literature. His muffled taste began to assert itself.
He found himself impressionable where before he had been only mildly
acquisitive. The literature of revolt and free speculation fired him
into a state of spiritual explosiveness. All that he read now stood out
in brighter colors and in sharper outlines than before. As he reached a
better balance, he began to feel the vigor of literary form, the value
of sincerity and freshness of style. He began to look for them keenly
in everything he read. It was long before Miro realized that enthusiasm
not docility had made him critical. He became a little proud of his
sensitive and discriminating reactions to the modern and the unsifted.
This pursuit had to take place without any help from the college.
After Miro graduated, it is true that it became the fashion to study
literature as the record of ideas and not merely as a canon of sacred
books to be analyzed, commented upon, and absorbed. But no dent was
made upon the system in Miros time, and, the inventory of English
criticism not going beyond Stevenson, no college course went beyond
Stevenson. The Elizabethans had been exhumed and fumigated, but the
most popular attention went to the gallery of Victorians, who combined
moral soundness with literary beauty, and were therefore considered
wholesome food for young men. The instructors all remained in the state
of reverence which saw all things good that had been immemorially
taught. Miros own teacher was a fragile, earnest young man, whose
robuster parents had evidently seized upon his nature as a fortunate
pledge of what the family might produce in the way of an intellectual
flower that should surpass in culture and gentility the ambitions of
his parents. His studiousness, hopeless for his fathers career as
grocer, had therefore been capitalized into education.
The product now shone forth as one of the most successful and
promising younger instructors in the department. He knew his subject.
Card-indexes filled his room, covering in detail the works, lives,
and deaths of the illustrious persons whom he expounded, as well as
everything that had been said about them in the way of appreciation or
interpretation. An endless number of lectures and courses could be
made from this bountiful store. He never tried to write himself, but he
knew all about the different kinds of writing, and when he corrected
the boys themes he knew infallibly what to tell them to avoid. Miros
vagaries scandalized his teacher all the more because during his first
year in college Miro had been generally noticed as one with the proper
sobriety and scholarly patience to graduate into a similar priestly
calling. Miro found scant sympathy in the young man. To the latter,
literary studies were a science not an art, and they were to be treated
with somewhat the same cold rigor of delimitation and analysis as
any other science. Miro felt his teachers recoil at the idea that
literature was significant only as the expression of personality or
as interpretation of some social movement. Miro saw how uneasy he
became when he was confronted with current literature. It was clear
that Miros slowly growing critical sense had not a counterpart in the
scholastic mind.
When Miro and his friends abandoned literary studies, they followed
after the teachers of history and philosophy, intellectual arenas of
which the literary professors seemed scandalously ignorant. At this
ignorance Miro boiled with contempt. Here were the profitable clues
that would give meaning to dusty literary scholarship, but the scholars
had not the wits to seize them. They lived along, playing what seemed
to Miro a rather dreary game, when they were not gaping reverently at
ideas and forms which they scarcely had the genuine personality to
appreciate. Miro felt once and for all free of these mysteries and
reverences. He was to know the world as it has been and as it is. He
was to put literature into its proper place, making all “culture”
serve its apprenticeship for him as interpretation of things larger
than itself, of the course of individual lives and the great tides of
society.
Miros later cultural life is not without interest. When he had
finished college and his architectural course, and was making headway
in his profession, his philosophy of the intellectual life began to
straighten itself out. Rapid as his surrender of orthodoxy had been,
it had taken him some time to live down that early education. He found
now that he would have to live down his heresies also, and get some
coherent system of tastes that was his own and not the fruit of either
docility or the zeal of propaganda.
The old battles that were still going on helped Miro to realize his
modern position. It was a queer, musty quarrel, but it was enlisting
minds from all classes and of all intellectual fibers. The “classics”
were dying hard, as Miro recognized whenever he read, in the magazines,
attacks on the “new education.” He found that professors were still
taken seriously who declared in passion that without the universal
study of the Latin language in American schools all conceptions of
taste, standards, criticism, the historic sense itself, would vanish
from the earth. He found that even as late as 1917 professional men
were gathering together in solemn conclave and buttressing the “value
of the classics” with testimonials from “successful men” in a variety
of vocations. Miro was amused at the fact that the mighty studies once
pressed upon him so uncritically should now require, like the patent
medicines, testimonials as to their virtue. Bank presidents, lawyers,
and editors had taken the Latin language regularly for years, and had
found its effects painless and invigorating. He could not escape the
unconscious satire that such plump and prosperous Americans expressed
when they thought it admirable to save their cherished intellectual
traditions in any such fashion.
Other conservatives Miro saw to be abandoning the line of opposition
to science, only to fall back on the line of a defensive against
“pseudo-science,” as they seemed to call whatever intellectual
interests had not yet become indubitably reputable. It was a line which
would hold them rather strongly for a time, Miro thought, because so
many of the cultural revolutionists agreed with them in hating some of
these arrogant and mechanical psychologies and sociologies that reduced
life to figures or organisms. But Miro felt also how obstructive was
their fight. If the “classics” had done little for him except to hold
his mind in an uncomprehending prison, and fetter his spontaneous
taste, they seemed to have done little more for even the thorough
scholars. When professors had devoted scholarly lives to the “classics”
only to exhibit in their own polemics none of the urbanity and
intellectual command which were supposed by the believer somehow to
rub off automatically on the faithful student, Miro had to conclude an
absence of causal connection between the “classics” and the able modern
mind. When, moreover, critical power or creative literary work became
almost extinct among these defenders of the “old education,” Miro felt
sure that a revolution was needed in the materials and attitudes of
“culture.”
The case of the defenders was all the weaker because their enemies were
not wanton infidels, ignorant of the holy places they profaned. They
were rather cultural “Modernists,” reforming the church from within.
They had the classic background, these young vandals, but they had
escaped from its flat and unoriented surface. Abreast of the newer
objective, impersonal standards of thinking, they saw the weakness of
these archaic minds which could only appeal to vested interests in
culture and testimonials from successful men.
The older critics had long since disavowed the intention of
discriminating among current writers. These men, who had to have an
Academy to protect them, lumped the younger writers of verse and prose
together as “anarchic” and “naturalistic,” and had become, in these
latter days, merely peevish and querulous, protesting in favor of
standards that no longer represented our best values. Every one, in
Miros time, bemoaned the lack of critics, but the older critics seemed
to have lost all sense of hospitality and to have become tired and a
little spitefully disconsolate, while the newer ones were too intent on
their crusades against puritanism and philistinism to have time for a
constructive pointing of the way.
Miro had a very real sense of standing at the end of an era. He and his
friends had lived down both their old orthodoxies of the classics and
their new orthodoxies of propaganda. Gone were the priggishness and
self-consciousness which had marked their teachers. The new culture
would be more personal than the old, but it would not be held as a
personal property. It would be democratic in the sense that it would
represent each persons honest spontaneous taste. The old attitude was
only speciously democratic. The assumption was that if you pressed
your material long enough and winningly enough upon your culturable
public, they would acquire it. But the material was something handed
down, not grown in the garden of their own appreciations. Under
these conditions the critic and appreciator became a mere impersonal
register of orthodox opinion. The cultivated person, in conforming his
judgments to what was authoritatively taught him, was really a member
of the herd--a cultivated herd, it is true, but still a herd. It was
the mass that spoke through the critic and not his own discrimination.
These authoritative judgments might, of course, have come--probably
had come--to the herd through discerning critics, but in Miros time
judgment in the schools had petrified. One believed not because one
felt the original discernment, but because one was impressed by the
weight and reputability of opinion. At least so it seemed to Miro.
Now just as the artists had become tired of conventions and were
breaking through into new and personal forms, so Miro saw the younger
critics breaking through these cultural conventions. To the elders
the result would seem mere anarchy. But Miros attitude did not want
to destroy, it merely wanted to rearrange the materials. He wanted no
more second-hand appreciations. No ones cultural store was to include
anything that one could not be enthusiastic about. Ones acquaintance
with the best that had been said and thought should be encouraged--in
Miros ideal school--to follow the lines of ones temperament. Miro,
having thrown out the old gods, found them slowly and properly coming
back to him. Some would always repel him, others he hoped to understand
eventually. But if it took wisdom to write the great books, did it not
also take wisdom to understand them? Even the Latin writers he hoped
to recover, with the aid of translations. But why bother with Greek
when you could get Euripides in the marvellous verse of Gilbert Murray?
Miro was willing to believe that no education was complete without at
least an inoculation of the virus of the two orthodoxies that he was
transcending.
As Miro looked around the American scene, he wondered where the
critics were to come from. He saw, on the one hand, Mr. Mencken and
Mr. Dreiser and their friends, going heavily forth to battle with
the Philistines, glorying in pachydermatous vulgarisms that hurt the
polite and cultivated young men of the old school. And he saw these
violent critics, in their rage against puritanism, becoming themselves
moralists, with the same bigotry and tastelessness as their enemies.
No, these would never do. On the other hand, he saw Mr. Stuart P.
Sherman, in his youthful if somewhat belated ardor, revolting so
conscientiously against the “naturalism” and crude expression of
current efforts that, in his defense of _belles-lettres_, of the
fine tradition of literary art, he himself became a moralist of the
intensest brand, and as critic plumped for Arnold Bennett, because that
clever man had a feeling for the proprieties of human conduct. No, Mr.
Sherman would do even less adequately. His fine sympathies were as
much out of the current as was the specious classicism of Professor
Shorey. He would have to look for the critics among the young men who
had an abounding sense of life, as well as a feeling for literary form.
They would be men who had not been content to live on their cultural
inheritance, but had gone out into the modern world and amassed a fresh
fortune of their own. They would be men who were not squeamish, who did
not feel the delicate differences between “animal” and “human” conduct,
who were enthusiastic about Mark Twain and Gorki as well as Romain
Rolland, and at the same time were thrilled by Copeaus theater.
Where was a better program for culture, for any kind of literary
art? Culture as a living effort, a driving attempt both at sincere
expression and at the comprehension of sincere expression wherever it
was found! Appreciation to be as far removed from the “I know what
I like!” as from the textbook impeccability of taste! If each mind
sought its own along these lines, would not many find themselves
agreed? Miro insisted on liking Amy Lowells attempt to outline
the tendencies in American poetry in a form which made clear the
struggles of contemporary men and women with the tradition and
against “every affectation of the mind.” He began to see in the new
class-consciousness of poets the ending of that old division which
“culture” made between the chosen people and the gentiles. We were
now to form little pools of workers and appreciators of similar
temperaments and tastes. The little magazines that were starting up
became voices for these new communities of sentiment. Miro thought that
perhaps at first it was right to adopt a tentative superciliousness
towards the rest of the world, so that both Mr. Mencken with his
shudders at the vulgar Demos and Mr. Sherman with his obsession with
the sanely and wholesomely American might be shut out from influence.
Instead of fighting the Philistine in the name of freedom, or fighting
the vulgar iconoclast in the name of wholesome human notions, it might
be better to write for ones own band of comprehenders, in order that
one might have something genuine with which to appeal to both the mob
of the “bourgeois” and the ferocious vandals who had been dividing
the field among them. Far better a quarrel among these intensely
self-conscious groups than the issues that had filled _The Atlantic_
and _The Nation_ with their dreary obsolescence. Far better for the
mind that aspired towards “culture” to be told not to conform or
worship, but to search out its group, its own temperamental community
of sentiment, and there deepen appreciations through sympathetic
contact.
It was no longer a question of being hospitable towards the work of
other countries. Miro found the whole world open to him, in these
days, through the enterprise of publishers. He and his friends felt
more sympathetic with certain groups in France and Russia than they
did with the variegated “prominent authors” of their own land. Winston
Churchill as a novelist came to seem more of an alien than Artzybashev.
The fact of culture being international had been followed by a sense of
its being. The old cultural attitude had been hospitable enough, but it
had imported its alien culture in the form of “comparative literature.”
It was hospitable only in trying to mould its own taste to the orthodox
canons abroad. The older American critic was mostly interested in
getting the proper rank and reverence for what he borrowed. The new
critic will take what suits his community of sentiment. He will want
to link up not with the foreign canon, but with that group which is
nearest in spirit with the effort he and his friends are making. The
American has to work to interpret and portray the life he knows. He
cannot be international in the sense that anything but the life in
which he is saturated, with its questions and its colors, can be the
material for his art. But he can be international--and must be--in the
sense that he works with a certain hopeful vision of a “young world,”
and with certain ideal values upon which the younger men, stained and
revolted by war, in all countries are agreeing.
Miro wonders sometimes whether the direction in which he is tending
will not bring him around the circle again to a new classicism. The
last stage in the history of the man of culture will be that “classic”
which he did not understand and which his mind spent its youth in
overthrowing. But it will be a classicism far different from that which
was so unintelligently handed down to him in the American world. It
will be something worked out and lived into. Looking into the future
he will have to do what Van Wyck Brooks calls “inventing a usable
past.” Finding little in the American tradition that is not tainted
with sweetness and light and burdened with the terrible patronage of
bourgeois society, the new classicist will yet rescue Thoreau and
Whitman and Mark Twain and try to tap through them a certain eternal
human tradition of abounding vitality and moral freedom, and so build
out the future. If the classic means power with restraint, vitality
with harmony, a fusion of intellect and feeling, and a keen sense of
the artistic conscience, then the revolutionary world is coming out
into the classic. When Miro sees behind the minds of _The Masses_ group
a desire for form and for expressive beauty, and sees the radicals
following Jacques Copeau and reading Chekhov, he smiles at the thought
of the American critics, young and old, who do not know yet that they
are dead.
It was Matthew Arnold, read and reverenced by the generation
immediately preceding our own, who set to our eyes a definition and a
goal of culture which has become the common property of all our world.
To know the best that had been thought and said, to appreciate the
master-works which the previous civilizations had produced, to put our
minds and appreciations in contact with the great of all ages,--here
was a clear ideal which dissolved the mists in which the vaguenesses of
culture had been lost. And it was an ideal that appealed with peculiar
force to Americans. For it was a democratic ideal; every one who had
the energy and perseverance could reasonably expect to acquire by
taking thought that orientation of soul to which Arnold gave the magic
name of culture. And it was a quantitative ideal; culture was a matter
of acquisition--with appreciation and prayerfulness perhaps, but still
a matter of adding little by little to ones store until one should
have a vision of that radiant limit, when one knew all the best that
had been thought and said and pictured in the world.
I do not know in just what way the British public responded to Arnolds
eloquence; if the prophetic wrath of Ruskin failed to stir them, it is
not probable that they were moved by the persuasiveness of Arnold. But
I do know that, coming at a time when America was producing rapidly an
enormous number of people who were “comfortably off,” as the phrase
goes, and who were sufficiently awake to feel their limitations, with
the broader horizons of Europe just opening on the view, the new
doctrine had the most decisive effect on our succeeding spiritual
history. The “land-of-liberty” American of the era of Dickens still
exists in the British weeklies and in observations of America by callow
young journalists, but as a living species he has long been extinct.
His place has been taken by a person whose pride is measured not by
the greatness of the “land of the free,” but by his own orientation in
Europe.
Already in the nineties, our college professors and our artists were
beginning to require the seal of a European training to justify
their existence. We appropriated the German system of education.
Our millionaires began the collecting of pictures and the endowment
of museums with foreign works of art. We began the exportation of
school-teachers for a summer tour of Europe. American art and music
colonies sprang up in Paris and Berlin and Munich. The movement became
a rush. That mystical premonition of Europe, which Henry James tells
us he had from his earliest boyhood, became the common property of the
talented young American, who felt a certain starvation in his own land,
and longed for the fleshpots of European culture. But the bourgeoisie
soon followed the artistic and the semi-artistic, and Europe became so
much the fashion that it is now almost a test of respectability to have
traveled at least once abroad.
Underlying all this vivacious emigration, there was of course a real
if vague thirst for “culture,” and, in strict accord with Arnolds
definition, the idea that somehow culture could be imbibed, that from
the contact with the treasures of Europe there would be rubbed off
on us a little of that grace which had made the art. So for those
who could not travel abroad, our millionaires transported, in almost
terrifying bulk and at staggering cost, samples of everything that the
foreign galleries had to show. We were to acquire culture at any cost,
and we had no doubt that we had discovered the royal road to it. We
followed it, at any rate, with eye single to the goal. The naturally
sensitive, who really found in the European literature and arts some
sort of spiritual nourishment, set the pace, and the crowd followed at
their heels.
This cultural humility of ours astonished and still astonishes Europe.
In England, where “culture” is taken very frivolously, the bated
breath of the American, when he speaks of Shakespeare or Tennyson or
Browning, is always cause for amusement. And the Frenchman is always a
little puzzled at the crowds who attend lectures in Paris on “How to
See Europe Intelligently,” or are taken in vast parties through the
Louvre. The European objects a little to being so constantly regarded
as the keeper of a huge museum. If you speak to him of culture, you
find him frankly more interested in contemporaneous literature and art
and music than in his worthies of the olden time, more interested
in discriminating the good of to-day than in accepting the classics.
If he is a cultivated person, he is much more interested usually in
quarreling about a living dog than in reverencing a dead lion. If he
is a French _lettré_, for instance, he will be producing a book on
the psychology of some living writer, while the Anglo-Saxon will be
writing another on Shakespeare. His whole attitude towards the things
of culture, be it noted, is one of daily appreciation and intimacy, not
that attitude of reverence with which we Americans approach alien art,
and which penalizes cultural heresy among us.
The European may be enthusiastic, polemic, radiant, concerning his
culture; he is never humble. And he is, above all, never humble before
the culture of another country. The Frenchman will hear nothing but
French music, read nothing but French literature, and prefers his own
art to that of any other nation. He can hardly understand our almost
pathetic eagerness to learn of the culture of other nations, our
humility of worship in the presence of art that in no sense represents
the expression of any of our ideals and motivating forces.
To a genuinely patriotic American this cultural humility of ours is
somewhat humiliating. In response to this eager inexhaustible interest
in Europe, where is Europes interest in us? Europe is to us the land
of history, of mellow tradition, of the arts and graces of life, of the
best that has been said and thought in the world. To Europe we are the
land of crude racial chaos, of skyscrapers and bluff, of millionaires
and “bosses.” A French philosopher visits us, and we are all eagerness
to get from him an orientation in all that is moving in the world of
thought across the seas. But does he ask about our philosophy, does
he seek an orientation in the American thought of the day? Not at
all. Our humility has kept us from forcing it upon his attention, and
it scarcely exists for him. Our advertising genius, so powerful and
universal where soap and biscuits are concerned, wilts and languishes
before the task of trumpeting our intellectual and spiritual products
before the world. Yet there can be little doubt which is the more
intrinsically worth advertising. But our humility causes us to be taken
at our own face value, and for all this patient fixity of gaze upon
Europe, we get little reward except to be ignored, or to have our
interest somewhat contemptuously dismissed as parasitic.
And with justice! For our very goal and ideal of culture has made us
parasites. Our method has been exactly wrong. For the truth is that the
definition of culture, which we have accepted with such devastating
enthusiasm, is a definition emanating from that very barbarism from
which its author recoiled in such horror. If it were not that all our
attitude showed that we had adopted a quite different standard, it
would be the merest platitude to say that culture is not an acquired
familiarity with things outside, but an inner and constantly operating
taste, a fresh and responsive power of discrimination, and the
insistent judging of everything that comes to our minds and senses. It
is clear that such a sensitive taste cannot be acquired by torturing
our appreciations into conformity with the judgments of others, no
matter how “authoritative” those judgments may be. Such a method means
a hypnotization of judgment, not a true development of soul.
At the back of Arnolds definition is, of course, the implication
that if we have only learned to appreciate the “best,” we shall have
been trained thus to discriminate generally, that our appreciation of
Shakespeare will somehow spill over into admiration of the incomparable
art of Mr. G. Lowes Dickinson. This is, of course, exactly to reverse
the psychological process. A true appreciation of the remote and
the magnificent is acquired only after the judgment has learned to
discriminate with accuracy and taste between the good and bad, the
sincere and the false, of the familiar and contemporaneous art and
writing of every day. To set up an alien standard of the classics is
merely to give our lazy taste a resting-point, and to prevent forever
any genuine culture.
This virus of the “best” rages throughout all our Anglo-Saxon campaign
for culture. Is it not a notorious fact that our professors of English
literature make no attempt to judge the work produced since the death
of the last consecrated saint of the literary canon,--Robert Louis
Stevenson? In strict accordance with Arnolds doctrine, they are
waiting for the judgment upon our contemporaries which they call the
test of time, that is, an authoritative objective judgment, upon which
they can unquestioningly rely. Surely it seems as if the principle of
authority, having been ousted from religion and politics, had found
a strong refuge in the sphere of culture. This tyranny of the “best”
objectifies all our taste. It is a “best” that is always outside of
our native reactions to the freshnesses and sincerities of life, a
“best” to which our spontaneities must be disciplined. By fixing our
eyes humbly on the ages that are past, and on foreign countries, we
effectually protect ourselves from that inner taste which is the only
sincere “culture.”
Our cultural humility before the civilizations of Europe, then, is the
chief obstacle which prevents us from producing any true indigenous
culture of our own. I am far from saying, of course, that it is not
necessary for our arts to be fertilized by the civilizations of other
nations past and present. The culture of Europe has arisen only from
such an extensive cross-fertilization in the past. But we have passed
through that period of learning, and it is time for us now to set up
our individual standards. We are already “heir of all the ages” through
our English ancestry, and our last half-century of European idolatry
has done for us all that can be expected. But, with our eyes fixed
on Europe, we continue to strangle whatever native genius springs
up. Is it not a tragedy that the American artist feels the imperative
need of foreign approval before he can be assured of his attainment?
Through our inability or unwillingness to judge him, through our
cultural humility, through our insistence on the objective standard,
we drive him to depend on a foreign clientèle, to live even in foreign
countries, where taste is more confident of itself and does not require
the label, to be assured of the worth of what it appreciates.
The only remedy for this deplorable situation is the cultivation of
a new American nationalism. We need that keen introspection into the
beauties and vitalities and sincerities of our own life and ideals that
characterizes the French. The French culture is animated by principles
and tastes which are as old as art itself. There are “classics,”
not in the English and Arnoldian sense of a consecrated canon,
dissent from which is heresy, but in the sense that each successive
generation, putting them to the test, finds them redolent of those
qualities which are characteristically French, and so preserves them
as a precious heritage. This cultural chauvinism is the most harmless
of patriotisms; indeed it is absolutely necessary for a true life of
civilization. And it can hardly be too intense, or too exaggerated.
Such an international art exhibition as was held recently in New York,
with the frankly avowed purpose of showing American artists how bad
they were in comparison with the modern French, represents an appalling
degradation of attitude which would be quite impossible in any other
country. Such groveling humility can only have the effect of making us
feeble imitators, instead of making us assert, with all the power at
our command, the genius and individuality which we already possess in
quantity, if we would only see it.
In the contemporary talent that Europe is exhibiting, or even in the
genius of the last half-century, one will go far to find greater poets
than our Walt Whitman, philosophers than William James, essayists
than Emerson and Thoreau, composers than MacDowell, sculptors than
Saint-Gaudens. In any other country such names would be focuses to
which interest and enthusiasms would converge, symbols of a national
spirit about which judgments and tastes would revolve. For none of
them could have been born in another country than our own. If some of
them had their training abroad, it was still the indigenous America
that their works expressed,--the American ideals and qualities, our
pulsating democracy, the vigor and daring of our pioneer spirit, our
sense of _camaraderie_, our dynamism, the big-heartedness of our
scenery, our hospitality to all the world. In the music of MacDowell,
the poetry of Whitman, the philosophy of James, I recognize a national
spirit, “lesprit américain,” as superbly clear and gripping as
anything the culture of Europe has to offer us, and immensely more
stimulating, because of the very body and soul of to-days interests
and aspirations.
To come to an intense self-consciousness of these qualities, to
feel them in the work of these masters, and to search for them
everywhere among the lesser artists and thinkers who are trying to
express the soul of this hot chaos of America,--this will be the
attainment of culture for us. Not to look on ravished while our
marvelous millionaires fill our museums with “old masters,” armor, and
porcelains, but to turn our eyes upon our own art for a time, shut
ourselves in with our own genius, and cultivate with an intense and
partial pride what we have already achieved against the obstacles of
our cultural humility. Only thus shall we conserve the American spirit
and saturate the next generation with those qualities which are our
strength. Only thus can we take our rightful place among the cultures
of the world, to which we are entitled if we would but recognize it. We
shall never be able to perpetuate our ideals except in the form of art
and literature; the world will never understand our spirit except in
terms of art. When shall we learn that “culture,” like the kingdom of
heaven, lies within us, in the heart of our national soul, and not in
foreign galleries and books? When shall we learn to be proud? For only
pride is creative.
Karen interested more by what she always seemed about to say and be
than by anything she was at the moment. I could never tell whether her
inscrutability was deliberate or whether she did not know how to be
articulate. When she was pleased she would gaze at you benignly but
there was always a slight uneasiness in the air as if the serenity
were only a resultant of tumultuous feelings that were struggling
to appreciate the situation. She was always most animated when she
was annoyed at you. At those times you could fairly feel the piquant
shafts of evil-heartedness hitting your body as she contended against
your egoism or any of the personal failings that hurt her sense of
your fitness. These moments took you into the presence of the somber
irascibility of that northern land from which she came, and you felt
her foreignness brush you. Her smooth, fair, parted hair would become
bristly and surly; that face, which looked in repose like some Madonna
which a Swedish painter would love, took on a flush; green lights
glanced from her eyes. She was as inscrutable in anger as she was in
her friendliness. You never knew just what strange personal freak of
your villainy had set it off, though you often found it ascribed to
some boiling fury in your own placid soul. You were not aware of this
fury, but her intuition for it made her more inscrutable than ever.
I first met Karen at a state university in the West where she had come
for some special work in literature, after a few years of earning her
living at browbeaten stenography. She never went to her classes, and
I had many long walks with her by the lake. In that somewhat thin
intellectual atmosphere of the college, she devoted most of her time to
the fine art of personal relations, and, as nobody who ever looked at
her was not fascinated by her blonde inscrutability and curious soft
intensity, she had no difficulty in soon enmeshing herself in several
nebulous friendships. She told us that she hoped eventually to write
novels, but there was never anything to show that her novels unfolded
anywhere but in her mind as they interpreted the richly exciting
detail of her daily personal contacts. If you asked her about her
writings, you became immediately thankful that looks could not slay,
and some witch-fearing ancestor crossed himself shudderingly in your
soul. Intercourse with Karen was not very concrete. Our innumerable
false starts at understanding, the violence and exact quality of my
interest, the technique of getting just that smooth and silky rapport
between us which she was always anticipating--this seemed to make
up the fabric of her thoughts. At that time she was reading mostly
George Moore and Henry James, and I think she hoped we would all prove
adequate for a subtly interwoven society. This was a little difficult
in a group that was proud of its modernities, of its dizzy walking
over flimsy generalizations, of its gifts of exploding in shrapnels of
epigram. Karen loathed ideas and often quoted George Moore on their
hideousness. The mere suggestion of an idea was so likely to destroy
the poise of her mood, that conversation became a strategy worth
working for. Karen did not think, she felt--in slow, sensuous outlines.
You could feel her feelings curiously putting out long streamers at
you, and, if you were in the mood, a certain subterranean conversation
was not impossible. But if you did not happen to guess her mood, then
you quarreled.
When I met Karen, she was twenty-five, and I guessed that she would
always be twenty-five. She had personal ideals that she wished for
herself, and if you asked what she was thinking about, it was quite
likely to be the kind of noble woman she was to be, or feared she would
not be, at forty. But she was too insistent upon creating her world
in her own image to remain sensitive to the impressions that make
for growth. As the story of her life came out, the bitter immigrant
journey, the despised house-work, the struggle to get an education,
the office drudgery, the lack of roots and a place, you came to
appreciate this personal cult of Karens. She was so clearly finer
and intenser than the people who had been in the world about her,
that her starved soul had to find nourishment where it could. Even
if she was insensible to ideas, her soft searching at least allured.
It was perhaps her starved condition which made her friendships so
subject to sudden disaster. Karens notes were always a little more
brightly intimate than her personal resources were able to support.
She seemed to start with a plan of the conversation in her head. If
you bungled, and with her little retreats and evasions you were always
bungling, you could feel her spirit stamp its feet in vexation. She
would plan pleasant soliloquies, and you would find yourself in a
fiercely cross-examinatory mood. She loathed your probing of her mood,
and parried you in a helpless way which made you feel as if you were
tearing tissue. You always seemed with Karen to be in a laboratory of
personal relations where priceless things were being discovered, but
you felt her more as an alchemist than a modern physicist of the soul,
and her method rather that of trial and error than real experiment.
I am quite sure that Karens system of personal relations was platonic.
She never seemed to get beyond that laying of the broad foundation of
the Jamesian tone that would have been necessary to make the thing an
“affair.” She was often lovely and she was not unloved. She was much
interested in men, but it was more as co-actors in a personal drama
of her own devising than as lovers or even as men. The most she ever
hoped for, I think, was to be the sacred fount, and to have her flow
copious and manifold. You felt the immense qualifications a man would
have to have in the subtleties of rapport to make him even a candidate
for loving. For Karen, men seemed to exist only as they brought a touch
of ceremonial into their personal relations. I think Karen never quite
intended to surround herself with the impenetrable armor of vestal
virginity, and yet she did not avoid it. However glowing and mysterious
she might look as she lay before the fire in her room, so that to an
impatient friend nothing might seem more important than to catch her
up warmly in his arms, he would have been an audacious brigand who
violated the atmosphere. Karen always so much gave the impression of
playing for higher and nobler stakes that no brigand ever appeared.
Whether she deluded herself as to what she wanted or whether she had
a clearer insight than most women into the predatoriness of my sex,
her relations with men were rarely smooth. Caddishness seemed to be
breaking out repeatedly in the most unexpected places.
Some of the most serious of my friends got dark inadequacies charged
against them by Karen. I was a little in her confidence, but I could
rarely gather more than that the men of to-day had no sensitiveness
and were far too coarse for the fine and decent friendships which she
spent so much of her time and artistic imagination on arranging for
them with herself. I was constantly undergoing, at the hands of Karen,
a course of discipline myself, for my ungovernable temper or my various
repellant “tones” or my failure to catch just the quality of certain
people we discussed. I understood dimly the lucklessness of her “cads.”
They had perhaps not been urbanely plastic, they had perhaps been
impatiently adoring. They had at least not offended in any of the usual
ways. She would even forgive them sometimes with surprising suddenness.
But she never so far forgot her principles as to let them dictate a
mood. She never recognized any of the naïve collisions of men and women.
Karen often seemed keenly to wonder at this unsatisfactoriness of men.
She cultivated them, walking always in her magic circle, but they
slipped and grew dimmer. She had her fling of feminism towards the end
of her year. She left the university to become secretary for a state
suffrage leader. Under the stress of public life she became fierce and
serious. She abandoned the picturesque peasant costumes which she had
affected, and made herself hideous in mannish skirts and waists. She
felt the woes of women, and saw everywhere the devilish hand of the
exploiting male. If she ever married, she would have a house separate
from her husband. She would be no parasite, no mans woman. She spoke
of the “human sex,” and set up its norms for her acquaintanceships.
When I saw Karen later, however, she was herself again. She had taken
up again the tissue of personal relations. But in that reconstituted
world all her friends seemed to be women. Her taste of battle had
seemed to fortify and enlighten that ancient shrinking; her old
annoyance that men should be abruptly different from what she would
have them. She was intimate with feminists whose feminism had done
little more for their emotional life than to make them acutely
conscious of the cloven hoof of the male. Karen, in her brooding way,
was able to give this philosophy a far more poetical glamor than any
one I knew. Her woman friends adored her, even those who had not
acquired that mystic sense of “loyalty to woman” and did not believe
that no man was so worthy that he might not be betrayed with impunity.
Karen, on her part, adored her friends, and the care that had been
spent on unworthy men now went into toning up and making subtle the
women around her. She did a great deal for them, and was constantly
discovering godlike creatures in shop and street and bringing them in
to be mystically mingled with her circle.
Naturally it is Karens married friends who cause her greatest concern.
Eternal vigilance is the price of their salvation from masculine
tyranny. In the enemys country, under at least the nominal yoke, these
married girls seem to Karen subjects for her prayer and aid. She has
become exquisitely sensitive to any aggressive gestures on the part of
these creatures with whom her dear friends have so inexplicably allied
themselves, and she is constantly in little subtle intrigues to get the
victim free or at least armisticed. She broods over her little circle,
inscrutable, vigilant, a true vestal virgin on the sacred hearth of
woman. Husbands are doubtless better for that silent enemy whom they
see jealously adoring their wives.
Karen still leaves trails of mystery and desire where she goes, but
it is as a womans woman that I see her now, and, I am ashamed to
say, ignore her. Men could not be crowded into her Jamesian world and
she has solved the problem by obliterating them. She will not live by
means of them. Since she does not know how to live with them she lives
without them.
I should scarcely have understood Sophronisba unless I had imagined
her against the background of that impeccable New England town from
which she says she escaped. It is a setting of elm-shaded streets, with
houses that can fairly be called mansions, and broad lawns stretching
away from the green and beautiful white church. In this large
princeliness of aspect the naïve stranger, like myself, would imagine
nothing but what was grave and sweet and frank. Yet behind those
pillared porticos Sophronisba tells me sit little and petrified people.
This spacious beauty exists for people who are mostly afraid; afraid
of each other, afraid of candor, afraid of sex, afraid of radicals.
Underneath the large-hearted exterior she says they are stifled within.
Women go queer from repression, spinsters multiply on families hands,
while the young men drift away to Boston. Dark tales are heard of
sexual insanity, and Sophronisba seems to think that the chastest wife
never conceives without a secret haunting in her heart of guilt. I
think there are other things in Sophronisbas town, but these are the
things she has seen, and these are the things she has fled from.
Sophronisba is perhaps forty, but she is probably much younger than
she was at eleven. At that age the devilish conviction that she hated
her mother strove incessantly with the heavenly conviction that it was
her duty to love her. And there were unpleasing aunts and cousins who
exhaustingly had to be loved when she wished only spitefully to slap
them. Her conscience thus played her unhappy tricks through a submerged
childhood, until college came as an emancipation from that deadly
homesickness that is sickness not for your home but intolerance at it.
No more blessed relief comes to the conscience-burdened than the
chance to exchange their duties for their tastes, when what you should
unselfishly do to others is transformed into what books and pictures
you ought to like. Your conscience gets its daily exercise, but without
the moral pain. I imagine Sophronisba was not unhappy at college,
where she could give up her weary efforts to get her emotions correct
towards everybody in the world and the Three Persons in the heaven
above it, in favor of acquiring a sound and authorized cultural taste.
She seems to have very dutifully taken her masters degree in English
literature, and for her industrious conscience is recorded somewhere
an unreadable but scholarly thesis, the very name of which she has
probably forgotten herself.
For several years Sophronisba must have flowed along on that thin
stream of the intellectual life which seems almost to have been
invented for slender and thin-lipped New England maidens who
desperately must make a living for themselves in order to keep out of
the dull prison of their homes. There was for Sophronisba a little
teaching, a little settlement work, a little writing, and a position
with a publishing house. And always the firm clutch on New York and the
dizzy living on a crust that might at any moment break and precipitate
her on the intolerable ease of her dutifully loving family. It is
the conventional opinion that this being a prisoner on parole can
be terminated only by the safe custody of a man, or the thrilling
freedom of complete personal success. Sophronisbas career has been an
indeterminate sentence of womanhood. She is at once a proof of how very
hard the world still is on women, and how gaily they may play the game
with the odds against them.
I did not meet Sophronisba until she was in the mellow of her years,
and I cannot disentangle all her journalistic attempts, her dives
into this magazine and that, the electrifying discovery of her by
a great editor, the great careers that were always beginning, the
great articles that were called off at the last moment, the delayed
checks, the checks that never came, the magazines that went down
with all on board. But there were always articles that did come off,
and Sophronisba zigzagged her literary way through fat years of
weekly series and Sunday supplements and lean years of desk work and
book-reviewing. There are some of Sophronisbas articles that I should
like to have written myself. She piles her facts with great neatness,
and there is a little ironic punch sometimes which is not enough to
disturb the simple people who read it, but flatters you as of the more
subtly discerning. Further, she has a genuine talent for the timely.
There has been strategy as well as art in her career. That feminine
Yankeeness which speaks out of her quizzical features has not lived in
vain. She tells with glee of editors captured in skilful sorties of
wit, of connections laboriously pieced together. She confesses to plots
to take the interesting and valuable in her net. There is continuous
action along her battlefront. She makes the acceptance of an article
an exciting event. As you drop in upon her for tea to follow her work
from week to week, you seem to move in a maze of editorial conspiracy.
Her zestfulness almost brings a thrill into the prosaic business of
writing. Not beguilements, but candor and wit, are her ammunition. One
would expect a person who looked like Sophronisba to be humorous. But
her wit is good enough to be surprising, it is sharp but it leaves no
sting. And it gets all the advantage of being carried along on a voice
that retains the least suggestion of a racy Eastern twang. With the
twang goes that lift and breathlessness that makes everything sound
interesting. When you come upon Sophronisba in that charming dinner
group that she frequents or as she trips out of the library, portfolio
in hand, with a certain sedate primness which no amount of New York
will ever strain out of her, you know that for a few moments the air is
going to be bright.
How Sophronisba got rid of the virus of her New England conscience
and morbidities I do not know. She must have exorcised more demons
than most of us are even acquainted with. Yet she never seems to have
lost the zest that comes from standing on the brink and watching the
Gadarene swine plunge heavily down into the sea. She has expelled the
terrors of religion and the perils of thwarted sex, but their nearness
still thrills. She would not be herself, neither would her wit be as
good, if it were not much made of gay little blasphemies and bold
feminist irreverences. There is the unconscious play to the stiff New
England gallery that makes what she says of more than local relevance.
In her serious talk there lingers the slight, interested bitter tang of
the old Puritan poison. But current issues mean much to Sophronisba.
These things which foolish people speak of with grave-faced strainings
after objectivity, with uncouth scientific jargon and sudden lapses
into pruriency, Sophronisba presents as a genuine revelation. Her
personal curiosity, combined with intellectual clarity, enable her
to get it all assimilated. Her allegiance went, of course, quickly
to Freud, and once, in a sudden summer flight to Jung in Zurich, she
sat many hours absorbing the theories from a grave, ample, formidably
abstract, and--for Sophronisba--too unhumorous Fraülein assistant. What
Sophronisba got she has made into a philosophy of life, translated
into New England dialect, and made quite revealingly her own. Before
journalism claimed her for more startling researches, she would often
give it for you in racy and eager fashion, turning up great layers of
her own life and of those she knew about her. Many demons were thus
sent flying.
Her exorcisms have been gained by a blazing candor and by a
self-directed sense of humor which alone can support it. With the
white light of this lantern she seems to have hunted down all the evil
shadows in that background of hers. Her relentless exposure of her
own motives, her eager publicity of soul and that fascinating life
which is hers, her gossip without malice and her wise cynicism, make
Sophronisba the greatest of reliefs from a world too full of decent
reticences and self-respects. That heavy conscience has been trained
down to an athletic trimness. I cannot find an interest or a realism or
a self-interpretation at which she will cringe, though three centuries
of Puritanism in her blood should tell her how unhallowed most of them
are.
Sophronisba, naturally, is feminist to the core. Particularly on the
subject of the economic servitude of married women does she grow very
tense, and if anywhere her sense of humor deserts her it is here. But
she is so convincing that she can throw me into a state of profound
depression, from which I am not cheered by reflecting how unconscious
of their servitude most of these women are. Sophronisba herself is a
symbol of triumphant spinsterhood rejoicing the heart, an unmarried
woman who knows she would make a wretched wife and does not seem to
mind. Her going home once a year to see her family has epic quality
about it. She parts from her friends with a kind of resigned daring,
and returns with the air of a Proserpine from the regions of Pluto.
To have laid all these ghosts of gloom and queerness and fear which
must have darkened her prim and neglected young life, is to have
made herself a rarely interesting woman. I think the most delightful
bohemians are those who have been New England Puritans first.
She was French from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet, but
she was of that France which few Americans, I think, know or imagine.
She belonged to that France which Jean-Christophe found in his friend
Olivier, a world of flashing ideas and enthusiasms, a golden youth of
ideals.
She had picked me out for an exchange of conversation, as the custom
is, precisely because I had left my name at the Sorbonne as a person
who wrote a little. I had put this bait out, as it were, deliberately,
with the intention of hooking a mind that cared for a little more than
mere chatter, but I had hardly expected to find it in the form of a
young girl who, as she told me in her charmingly polished note, was
nineteen and had just completed her studies.
These studies formed a useful introduction when she received me in
the little old-fashioned apartment in the Batignolles quarter on my
first visit. She had made them ever since she was five years old in
a wonderful old convent at Bourges; and in the town had lived her
grandmother, a very old lady, whom she had gone lovingly to see, as
often as she could be away from the watchful care of the nuns. In
her she had found her real mother, for her parents had been far away
in Brittany. When the old lady died, my friend had to face an empty
world, and to become acquainted all over again with a mother whom
she confessed she found “little sympathetic.” But she was a girl of
_devoir_, and she would do nothing to wound her.
She told me one afternoon as we took our first walk through the dusky
richness of the Musée Cluny, that the shock of death had disclosed
to her how fleeting life was, how much she thought of death, and
how much she feared it. I used the lustiness of her grandmothers
eighty-four years to convince her as to how long she might have to
postpone her dread, but her fragile youth seemed already to feel the
beating wings about her. As she talked, her expression had all that
wistful seriousness of the French face which has not been devitalized
by the city, that sense of the nearness of unutterable things which
runs, a golden thread, through their poetry. Though she had lived away
from Brittany, in her graver moments there was much in her of the
patient melancholy of the Breton. For her fathers people had been
sea-folk,--not fishermen, but pilots and navigators on those misty and
niggardly shores,--and the long defeat and ever-trustful suffering was
in her blood. She would interpret to me the homely pictures at the
Luxembourg which spoke of coast and peasant life; and her beautiful
articulateness brought the very soul of France out of the canvases of
Cottet and Breton and Carrière. She understood these people.
But she was very various, and, if at first we plumbed together the
profoundest depths of her, we soon got into shallower waters. The
fluency of her thought outran any foreign medium, and made anything but
her flying French impossible. Her meager English had been learned from
some curious foreigner with an accent more German than French, and we
abandoned it by mutual consent. Our conversation became an exchange of
ideas and not of languages. Or rather her mind became the field where I
explored at will.
I think I began by assuming a Catholic devotion in her, and implied
that her serious outlook on life might lead her into the church. She
scoffed unmitigatedly at this. The nuns were not unkindly, she said,
but they were hard and narrow and did not care for the theater and for
books, which she adored.
She believed in God. “Et le théâtre!” I said, which delighted her
hugely. But these Christian virtues made unlovely characters and
cut one off so painfully from the fascinating moving world of ideas
outside. But surely after fourteen years of religious training and
Christian care, did she not believe in the Church, its priesthood and
its dogmas?
She repudiated her faith with indescribable vivacity. A hardened
Anglo-Saxon agnostic would have shown more diffidence in denying
his belief in dogma or the Bible. As for the latter, she said, it
might do for children of five years. And the cutting sweep of that
“enfants de cinq ans” afforded me a revealing glimpse of that lucid
intelligence with which the French mind cuts through layers and strata
of equivocation and compromise.
Most Frenchmen, if they lose their faith, go the swift and logical
road to atheism. Her loss was no childish dream or frenzy; she still
believed in God. But as for the Church and its priesthood,--she told
me, with malicious irony, and with the intelligence that erases
squeamishness, of a friend of hers who was the daughter of the priest
in charge of one of the largest Parisian churches. Would she confess
to a member of a priestly caste which thus broke faith? Confession was
odious anyway. She had been kept busy in school inventing sins. She
would go to church on Easter, but she would not take the Eucharist,
though I noticed a charming lapse when she crossed herself with holy
water as we entered Notre Dame one day.
Where had she ever got such ideas, shut up in a convent?--Oh, they were
all perfectly obvious, were they not? Where would one not get them?
This amazing soul of modern France!--which pervades even the walls of
convents with its spirit of free criticism and its terrible play of
the intelligence; which will examine and ruthlessly cast aside, just
as my vibrant, dark-haired, fragile friend was casting aside, without
hypocrisy or scruple, whatever ideas do not seem to enhance the clear
life to be lived.
Accustomed to grope and flounder in the mazes of the intellect, I found
her intelligence well-nigh terrifying. I would sit almost helplessly
and listen to her sparkle of talk. Her freedom knocked into pieces all
my little imagined world of French conventionalities and inhibitions.
How could this pale, dignified mother, to whom I was presented as she
passed hurriedly through the room one day, allow her to wander so
freely about Paris parks and museums with a foreign young man? Her
answer came superbly, with a flare of decision which showed me that
at least in one spot the eternal conflict of the generations had been
settled: “_Je me permets!_”--I allow myself. She gave me to understand
that for a while her mother had been difficult, but that there was no
longer any question of her “living her life”--_vivre sa vie_. And she
really thought that her mother, in releasing her from the useless
trammels, had become herself much more of an independent personality.
As for my friend, she dared, she took risks, she played with the
adventure of life. But she knew what was there.
The motherly Anglo-Saxon frame of mind would come upon me, to see
her in the light of a poor ignorant child, filled with fantastic
ideals, all so pitifully untested by experience. How ignorant she was
of life, and to what pitfalls her daring freedom must expose her in
this unregenerate France! I tried and gave it up. As she talked,--her
glowing eyes, in which ideas seemed to well up brimming with feeling
and purpose, saying almost more than her words,--she seemed too
palpably a symbol of luminous youth, a flaming militant of the younger
generation, who by her courage would shrivel up the dangers that so
beset the timorous. She was French, and that fact by itself meant
that whole layers of equivocation had been cut through, whole sets of
intricacies avoided.
In order to get the full shock of her individuality, I took her one
afternoon to a model little English tea-room on the rue de Rivoli,
where normal Britishers were reading _Punch_ and the _Spectator_
over their jam and cake. The little flurry of disapprobation and the
hostile stare which our appearance elicited from the well-bred families
and discreet young men at the tables, the flaring incongruity of her
dark, lithe, inscrutable personality in this bland, vacuous British
atmosphere, showed me as could nothing else how hard was the gem-like
flame with which she burned.
As we walked in the Luxembourg and along the quays, or sat on the
iron chairs in the gardens of the Parc Monceau or the Trocadéro, our
friendship became a sort of intellectual orgy. The difficulty of
following the pace of her flying tongue and of hammering and beating
my own thoughts into the unaccustomed French was fatiguing, but it was
the fascinating weariness of exploration. My first idle remarks about
God touched off a whole battery of modern ideas. None of the social
currents of the day seemed to have passed her by, though she had been
immured so long in her sleepy convent at Bourges. She had that same
interest and curiosity about other classes and conditions of life
which animates us here in America, and the same desire to do something
effective against the misery of poverty.
I had teased her a little about her academic, untried ideas, and
in grave reproof she told me, one afternoon, as we stood--of all
places!--on the porch of the Little Trianon at Versailles, a touching
story of a family of the poorest of the Parisian poor, whom she and
her mother visited and helped to get work. She did not think charity
accomplished very much, and flamed at the word “Socialism,” although
she had not yet had its program made very clear to her.
But mostly she was feminist,--an ardent disciple in that singularly
uncomplicated and happy march of the Frenchwomen, already so
practically emancipated, toward a definite social recognition of that
liberation. The normal Frenchwoman, in all but the richer classes,
is an economic asset to her country. And economic independence was
a cardinal dogma in my friends faith. She was already taking a
secretarial course, in order to ensure her ability to make her living;
and she looked forward quite eagerly to a career.
Marriage was in considerable disfavor; it had still the taint of the
Church upon it, while the civil marriage seemed, with the only recently
surrendered necessary parental consent, to mark the subjection of the
younger to the older generation. These barriers were now removed, but
the evil savor of the institution lingered on. My friend, like all the
French intellectuals, was all for the “union libre,” but it would have
to be loyal unto death. It was all the more inspiring as an ideal,
because it would be perhaps hard to obtain. Men, she was inclined to
think, were usually _malhonnête_, but she might find some day a man of
complete sympathy and complete loyalty. But she did not care. Life was
life, freedom was freedom, and the glory of being a woman in the modern
world was enough for her.
The French situation was perhaps quite as bad as it was pictured.
Friendship between a girl and a young man was almost impossible.
It was that they usually wished to love her. She did not mind them
on the streets. The students--oh, the students!--were frightfully
annoying; but perhaps one gave a _gifle_ and passed rapidly on. Her
parents, before she had become genuinely the captain of her soul, had
tried to marry her off in the orthodox French way. She had had four
proposals. Risking the clean candor of the French soul, I became
curious and audacious. So she dramatized for me, without a trace of
self-consciousness, a wonderful little scene of provincial manners.
The stiff young Frenchman making his stilted offer, her self-possessed
reluctance, her final refusal, were given in inimitable style. These
incidents, which in the life of a little American _bourgeoise_ would
have been crises or triumphs, and, at any rate, unutterably hoarded
secrets, were given with a cold frankness which showed refreshingly to
what insignificance marriage was relegated in her life. She wished, she
said, to _vivre sa vie_--to live her life. If marriage fitted in with
her living of her life, it might take her. It should never submerge
or deflect her. Countless Frenchwomen, in defiance of the strident
Anglo-Saxon belief, were able both to keep a household and to earn
their own living; and why not she also? She would always be free; and
her black eyes burned as they looked out so fearlessly into a world
that was to be all hers, because she expected nothing from it.
About this world, she had few illusions. To its worldlinesses and
glitter she showed really a superb indifference. I brutally tried to
trap her into a confession that she spurned it only because it might
be closed to her through lack of money or prestige. Her eloquent eyes
almost slew me with vivacious denial. She despised these “dolls” whose
only business in life was to wear clothes. Her own sober black was
not affectation, but only her way of showing that she was more than a
_poupée_. She did not say it, but I quite appreciated, and I knew well
that she knew, how charming a _poupée_ she might have made.
Several of her friends were gay and worldly. She spoke of them with
charming frankness, touching off, with a tone quite clean of malice,
all their little worthlessnesses and futilities. Some of this world,
indeed, shaded off into unimaginable _nuances_, but she was wholly
aware of its significance. In the inimitable French way, she disdained
to use its errors as a lever to elevate her own virtues.
Her blazing candor lighted up for me every part of her world. We
skirted abysses, but the language helped us wonderfully through. French
has worn tracks in so many fields of experience where English blunders
either boorishly or sentimentally. French is made for illumination and
clear expression; it has kept its purity and crispness and can express,
without shamefacedness or bungling, attitudes and interpretations which
the Anglo-Saxon fatuously hides.
My friend was dimly sensible of some such contrast. I think she had
as much difficulty in making me out as I had in making her out.
She was very curious as to how she compared with American girls.
She had once met one but had found her, though not a doll, yet not
_sympathique_ and little understandable. I had to tell my friend how
untranslatable she was. The Anglo-Saxon, I had to tell her, was apt to
be either a schoolchild or a middle-aged person. To the first, ideas
were strange and disturbing. To the second, they were a nuisance and
a bore. I almost assured her that in America she would be considered
a quite horrible portent. Her brimming idealism would make everybody
uncomfortable. The sensual delight which she took in thinking, the way
her ideas were all warmly felt and her feelings luminously expressed,
would adapt her badly to a world of school-children and tired business
men. I tried to go over for her the girls of her age whom I had
known. How charming they were to be sure, but, even when they had
ideas, how strangely inarticulate they sometimes were, and, if they
were articulate, how pedantic and priggish they seemed to the world
about them! And what forests of reticences and exaggerated values
there were, and curious illogicalities. How jealous they were of their
personalities, and what a suspicious and individualistic guard they
kept over their candor and sincerities! I was very gay and perhaps a
little cruel.
She listened eagerly, but I think she did not quite understand. If one
were not frankly a doll, was not life a great swirl to be grappled with
and clarified, and thought and felt about? And as for her personality,
the more she gave the more she had. She would take the high risks of
friendship.
To cross the seas and come upon my own enthusiasms and ideals vibrating
with so intense a glow seemed an amazing fortune. It was like coming
upon the same design, tinted in novel and picturesque colors of a
finer harmony. In this intellectual flirtation, carried on in _musée_
and garden and on quay throughout that cloudless April, I began to
suspect some gigantic flattery. Was her enthusiasm sincere, and her
clean-cutting ideas, or had she by some subtle intuition anticipated
me? Did she think, or was it to be expected of me, that I should fall
in love with her? But perhaps there was a touch of the too foreign
in her personality. And if I had fallen in love, I know it would not
have been with herself. It would have been with the Frenchness of her,
and perhaps was. It would have been with the eternal youth of France
that she was. For she could never have been so very glowing if France
had not been full of her. Her charm and appeal were far broader than
herself. It took in all that rare spiritual climate where one absorbs
ideas and ideals as the earth drinks in rain.
She was of that young France with its luminous understanding, its
personal verve, its light of expression, its way of feeling its ideas
and thinking its emotions, its deathless loyalty which betrays only at
the clutch of some deeper loyalty. She adored her country and all its
mystic values and aspirations. When she heard I was going to Germany,
she actually winced with pain. She could scarcely believe it. I fell
back at once to the position of a vulgar traveler, visiting even the
lands of the barbarians. They were her countrys enemies, and some day
they would attack. France awaited the onslaught fatalistically. She
did not want to be a man, but she wished that they would let women be
soldiers. If the war came, however, she would enlist at once as a Red
Cross nurse. She thrilled at the thought that perhaps there she could
serve to the uttermost.
And the war has come, hot upon her enthusiasms. She must have been long
since in the field, either at the army stations, or moving about among
the hospitals of Paris, her heart full of pride and pity for the France
which she loved and felt so well, and of whose deathless spirit she
was, for me, at least, so glowing a symbol.
My friend Fergus has all the characteristics of genius except the
divine fire. The guardian angel who presided at his birth and set in
order all his delicate appreciations just forgot to start flowing the
creative current. Fergus was born to suffer the pangs of artistic
desire without the gushing energy that would have moulded artistic
form. It was perhaps difficult enough to produce him as it was. There
is much that is clearly impossible about him. His father is a bluff
old Irish newspaper compositor, with the obstinately genial air of a
man who cannot believe that life will not some day do something for
him. His mother is a French-Canadian, jolly and stout, who plays old
Irish and French melodies on the harp, and mothers the young Catholic
girls of the crowded city neighborhood in which they live. She has the
slightly surprised background of never realized prosperity. Fergus
is an old child, and moves in the dark little flat, with its green
plush furniture, its prints of the Great Commoner and Lake Killarney,
its Bible texts of the Holy Name, with the detached condescension of
an exiled prince. He is very dark and finely formed, of the type that
would be taken for a Spaniard in France and an Italian in Spain, and
his manners have the distinction of the born aristocrat.
The influences of that close little Catholic society in which he was
brought up he has shed as a duck sheds water. His mother wished him to
be a Jesuit. The quickness of his mind, the refinement and hauteur of
his manner, intoxicated her with the assurance of his priestly future.
His father, however, inclined towards the insurance business. Fergus
himself viewed his future with cold disinterestedness. When I first met
him he had just emerged from a year of violin study at a music school.
The violin had been an escape from the twin horrors that had menaced
him. On his parents anxiety that he “make something of himself” he
looked with some disdain. He did, however, feel to a certain extent
their chagrin at finding so curious and aristocratic a person in
their family, and he allowed himself, with a fine stoicism as of an
exiled prince supporting himself until the revolution was crushed and
he was reinstated in his possessions, to be buried in an insurance
brokers office. At this time he spent his evenings in the dim vaulted
reading-room of a public library composing music, or in wandering in
the park with his friends, discussing philosophy. His little music
notebook and Gomperzs “Greek Thinkers” were rarely out of his hand.
Harmony and counterpoint had not appealed to him at the Conservatory,
but now the themes that raced and rocketed through his head compelled
him to composition. The bloodless scherzos and allegros which he
produced and tried to play for me on his rickety piano had so archaic a
flavor as to suggest that Fergus was inventing anew the art of music,
somewhat as our childhood is supposed to pass through all the stages
of the evolution of the race. As he did not seem to pass beyond a
pre-Bachian stage, he began to feel at length, he told me, that there
was something lacking in his style. But he was afraid that routine
study would dull his inspiration. It was time that he needed, and not
instruction. And time was slipping so quickly away. He was twenty-two,
and he could not grasp or control it.
When summer was near he came to me with an idea. His office work was
insupportable. Even accepting that one dropped eight of the best hours
of ones every day into a black and bottomless pit in exchange for the
privilege of remaining alive, such a life was almost worse than none. I
had friends who were struggling with a large country farm. He wished to
offer them his services as farmhand on half-time in exchange for simple
board and lodging. Working in the morning, he would have all the rest
of his pastoral day for writing music.
Before I could communicate to him my friends reluctance to this
proposal, he told me that his musical inspiration had entirely left
him. He was now spending all his spare time in the Art Museum,
discovering tastes and delights that he had not known were in him.
Why had not some one told him of the joy of sitting and reading Plato
in those glowing rooms? The Museum was more significant when I walked
in it with Fergus. His gracious bearing almost seemed to please the
pictures themselves. He walked as a princely connoisseur through his
own historic galleries.
When I saw Fergus next, however, a physical depression had fallen upon
him. He had gone into a vegetarian diet and was enfeebling himself with
Spartan fare. He was disturbed by loneliness, the erotic world gnawed
persistently at him, and all the Muses seemed to have left him. But in
his gloominess, in the fine discrimination with which he analyzed his
helplessness, in the noble despair with which he faced an insoluble
world, he was more aristocratic than ever. He was not like one who had
never attained genius, fame, voluptuous passion, riches, he was rather
as one who had been bereft of all these things.
Returning last autumn from a year abroad, during which I had not heard
a word of Fergus, I found he had turned himself into a professional
violin-teacher. The insurance job had passed out, and for a few weeks
he had supported himself by playing the organ in a small Catholic
church. There was jugglery with his salary, however, and it annoyed him
to be so intimate a figure in a ritual to which he could only refer in
irony. Priests whose “will to power” background he analyzed to me with
Nietzschean fidelity always repelled him.
He was saved from falling back on the industrious parents who had so
strangely borne him by an offer to play the harmonium in the orchestra
of a fashionable restaurant. To this opportunity of making eighteen
dollars a week he had evidently gone with a new and pleasurable sense
of the power of wealth. It was easy, he said, but the heat and the
lights, the food and the long evening hours fairly nauseated him, and
he gave the work up.
All this time, I gathered, his parents had been restive over a certain
economic waste. They seemed to feel that his expensive musical
education should be capitalized more firmly and more profitably. His
mother had even deplored his lack of ambition. She had explored and
had discovered that one made much money as a “vaudeville act.” He had
obtained a trial at an Upper Bronx moving-picture vaudeville theater.
Fergus told me that the nervous girl who had gone on the stage before
him had been cut short in the middle of her “Fox-Trot Lullaby,” or
whatever her song was, by hostile yells from the audience. Fergus
himself went on in rather a depressed mood, and hardly did himself
justice. He played the Bach air, and a short movement from Brahms. He
did not, however, get that rapport with his audience which he felt the
successful vaudeville artist should feel. They had not yelled at him,
but they had refused to applaud, and the circuit manager had declined
to engage him.
After this experience it occurred to Fergus that he liked to teach,
and that his training had made him a professional musician. His
personality, he felt, was not unfavorable. By beginning modestly he
saw no reason why he should not build up a clientèle and an honorable
competence. When I saw him a week later at the Music Settlement, he
told me that there was no longer any doubt that he had found his
lifework. His fees are very small and his pupils are exacting. He has
practised much besides. He told me the other day that teaching was
uninspiring drudgery. He had decided to give it up, and compose songs.
Whenever I see Fergus I have a slight quickening of the sense of life.
His rich and rather somber personality makes all ordinary backgrounds
tawdry. He knows so exactly what he is doing and what he is feeling. I
do not think he reads very much, but he breathes in from the air around
him certain large aesthetic and philosophical ideas. There are many
philosophies and many artists, however, that he has never heard of, and
this ignorance of the concrete gives one a fine pleasure of impressing
him. One can pour into receptive ears judgments and enthusiasms that
have long ago been taken for granted by ones more sophisticated
friends. His taste in art as in music is impeccable, and veers strongly
to the classics--Rembrandt and the Greeks, as Bach and Beethoven.
Fergus has been in love, but he does not talk much about it. A girl in
his words is somewhat dark and inscrutable. She always has something
haunting and finely-toned about her, whoever she may be. I always think
of the clothed lady in the flowing silks, in Titians “Sacred and
Profane Love.” Yet withal Fergus gives her a touch of the allurement of
her nude companion. His reserve, I think, always keeps these persons
very dusky and distant. His chastity is a result of his fineness
of taste rather than of feeble desire or conscious control. That
impersonal passion which descends on people like Fergus in a sultry
cloud he tells me he contrives to work off into his violin. I sometimes
wonder if a little more of it with a better violin would have made him
an artist.
But destiny has just clipped his wings so that he must live a life of
noble leisure instead of artistic creation. His unconscious interest
is the art of life. Against a background of Harlem flats and stodgy
bourgeois prejudices he works out this life of _otium cum dignitate_,
calm speculation and artistic appreciation that Nietzsche glorifies.
On any code that would judge him by the seven dollars a week which is
perhaps his average income he looks with cold disdain. He does not
demand that the world give him a living. He did not ask to come into
it, but being here he will take it with candor. Sometimes I think
he is very patient with life. Probably he is not happy. This is not
important. As his candor and his appreciations refresh me, I wonder
if the next best thing to producing works of art is not to be, like
Fergus, a work of art ones self.
The Professor is a young man, but he had so obviously the misfortune
of growing up too early that he seems already like a mournful relic
of irrevocable days. His ardent youth was spent in that halcyon time
of the early nineteen-hundreds when all was innocence in the heart of
young America. “When I was in college,” the Professor often says, “all
this discussion of social questions was unknown to us. The growing
seriousness of the American college student is an inspiring phenomenon
in our contemporary life.”
In those days the young men who felt an urge within them went in for
literature. It was still the time when Presbyterian clergymen and
courtly Confederate generals were contributing the inspiration of
their ripe scholarship to the younger generation. It was the time
when Brander Matthews still thrilled the world of criticism with his
scintillating Gallic wit and his cosmopolitan wealth of friendships.
The young men of that time are still a race apart. Through these
literary masters they touched the intimate life of literature; they
knew Kipling and Stevenson, Arthur Symons and the great Frenchmen, and
felt themselves one with the charmed literary brotherhood throughout
the world. It was still the time when, free from philosophic or
sociologic taint, our American youth was privileged to breathe in from
men like Henry van Dyke and Charles Eliot Norton the ideals of the
scholar and the gentleman.
The Professors sensitive talent soon asserted itself. With Wordsworth
he had absorbed himself into the circumambient life of nature and
made the great reconciliation between her and man. With Shelley he
had dared unutterable things and beaten his wings against the stars.
With Tennyson he had shuddered pensively on the brink of declining
faith. With Carlyle he had felt the call of duty, and all the revulsion
against a sordid and mechanical age. With Arnold he had sought the
sweetness and light which should come to him from knowing all the best
that had been said and thought in the world. The Professor had scarcely
begun to write verse before he found himself victor in a prize poetry
contest which had enlisted the talent of all the best poets of America.
He often tells his students of the intoxication of that evening when
he encircled the dim vaulted corridors of the college library, while
his excited brain beat out the golden couplets of the now celebrated
“Ganymede.” The success of this undergraduate stripling fell like
a thunderbolt upon the literary world. Already consecrated to the
scholars career, he found fallen upon him the miracle of the creative
artist. But Shelley and Keats had had their greatness very early, too.
And when, at the early age of twenty-three, the Professor published
his masterly doctoral dissertation on “The Anonymous Lyrics of the
Fourteenth Century,” he at once attained in the world of literary
scholarship the distinction that “Ganymede” had given him in the world
of poetry.
His career has not frustrated those bright promises. His rare fusion
of scholarship and genius won him the chair of English Literature in
one of our most rapidly growing colleges, where he has incomparable
opportunities for influencing the ideals of the young men under him.
His courses are among the most popular in the college. Although
his special scholarly research has been devoted to pre-Elizabethan
literature, he is at home in all the ages. His lectures are models of
carefully weighed criticism. “My purpose,” he says, “is to give my
boys the spirit of the authors, and let them judge between them for
themselves.” Consequently, however much Swinburne may revolt him, the
Professor expounds the carnal and desperate message of that poet with
the same care which he gives to his beloved Wordsworth. “When they have
heard them all,” he told me once, “I can trust my boys to feel the
insufficiency of any purely materialistic interpretation of life.”
Impeccable as is his critical taste where the classics are concerned,
he is reluctant about giving his opinion to those students who come
for a clue through the current literary maze. Stevenson was early
canonized, and the Professor speaks with charm and fulness upon him,
but G. B. S. and Galsworthy must wait. “Time, perhaps,” says the
Professor, “will put the seal of approval upon them. Meanwhile our
judgment can be only tentative.” His fine objectivity is shown in those
lists of the hundred best books of the year which he is sometimes
asked to compile for the Sunday newspapers. Rarely does a new author,
never does a young author, appear among them. Scholarly criticism, the
Professor feels, can scarcely be too cautious.
The Professors inspiring influence upon his students, however, is not
confined to his courses. He has formed a little literary society in the
college, which meets weekly to discuss with him the larger cultural
issues of the time. Lately he has become interested in philosophy.
“In my day,” he once told me, “we young literary men did not study
philosophy.” But now, professor that he is, he goes to sit at the feet
of the great metaphysicians of his college. He has been immensely
stirred by the social and moral awakening of recent years. He willingly
allows discussions of socialism in his little society, but is inclined
to deprecate the fanaticism of college men who lose their sense of
proportion on social questions. But in his open-mindedness to radical
thought he is an inspiration to all who meet him. To be radical, he
tells his boys, is a necessary part of experience. In professorial
circles he is looked upon as a veritable revolutionist, for he
encourages the discussion of vital questions even in the classroom.
Questions such as evolution, capital punishment, free thought,
protection and education of women, furnish the themes for composition.
And from the essays of the masters--Macaulay, Huxley, John Stuart Mill
and Matthew Arnold--come the great arguments as freshly and as vitally
as of yore. Literature, says the Professor, is not merely language; it
is ideas. We must above all, he says, teach our undergraduates to think.
Although the Professor is thus responsive to the best radicalisms of
the day, he does not let their shock break the sacred chalice of the
past. He is deeply interested in the religious life of his college.
A devout Episcopalian, he deplores the callousness of the present
generation towards the immemorial beauty of ritual and dogma. The
empty seats of the college chapel fill him with dismay. One of his
most beautiful poems pictures his poignant sensations as he comes
from a quiet hour within its dim, organ-haunted shadows out into the
sunlight, where the careless athletes are running bare-leggedly past
him, unmindful of the eternal things.
I think I like the Professor best in his study at home, when he talks
on art and life with one or two respectful students. On the wall is
a framed autograph of Wordsworth, picked up in some London bookshop;
and a framed letter of appreciation from Richard Watson Gilder. On the
table stands a richly-bound volume of “Ganymede” with some of the very
manuscripts, as he has shown us, bound in among the leaves. His deep
and measured voice flows pleasantly on in anecdotes of the Authors
Club, or reminiscences of the golden past. As one listens, the glamor
steals upon one. This is the literary life, grave, respected, serene.
All else is hectic rush, modern ideas a futile babel. It is men like
the Professor who keep the luster of scholarship bright, who hold true
the life of the scholar and the gentleman as it was lived of old. In a
world of change he keeps the faith pure.
When Dr. Alexander Mackintosh Butcher was elected to the presidency
of Pluribus University ten years ago, there was general agreement
that in selecting a man who was not only a distinguished educator but
an executive of marked business ability the trustees had done honor
to themselves and their university as well as to the new president.
For Dr. Butcher had that peculiar genius which would have made him as
successful in Wall Street or in a governors chair as in the classroom.
Every alumnus of Pluribus knows the story told of the young Alexander
Mackintosh Butcher, standing at the age of twenty-two at the threshold
of a career. Eager, energetic, with a brilliant scholastic record
behind him, it was difficult to decide into what profession he should
throw his powerful talents. To his beloved and aged president the young
man went for counsel. “My boy,” said the good old man, “remember that
no profession offers nobler opportunities for service to humanity
than that of education.” And what should he teach? “Philosophy is the
noblest study of man.” And a professor of philosophy the young Butcher
speedily became.
Those who were so fortunate as to study philosophy under him at
Pluribus will never forget how uncompromisingly he preached absolute
idealism, the Good, the True and the Beautiful, or how witheringly
he excoriated the mushroom philosophies which were springing up to
challenge the eternal verities. I have heard his old students remark
the secret anguish which must have been his when later, as president
of the university, he was compelled to entertain the famous Swiss
philosopher, Monsfilius, whose alluring empiricism was taking the
philosophic world by storm.
Dr. Butchers philosophic acuteness is only equaled by his political
rectitude. Indeed, it is as philosopher-politician that he holds the
unique place he does in our American life, injecting into the petty
issues of the political arena the immutable principles of Truth.
Early conscious of his duty as a man and a citizen, he joined the
historic party which had earned the eternal allegiance of the nation
by rescuing it from slavery. By faithful service to the chiefs of his
state organization, first under the powerful Flatt, and later under the
well-known Harnes, himself college-bred and a political philosopher of
no mean merit, the young Dr. Butcher worked his way up through ward
captain to the position of district leader. The practical example
of Dr. Butcher, the scholar and educator, leaving the peace of his
academic shades to carry the banner in the service of his party ideals
of Prosperity and Protection has been an inspiration to thousands
of educated men in these days of civic cowardice. When, three years
ago, his long and faithful services were rewarded by the honor of
second place on the Presidential ticket which swept the great states
of Mormonia and Green Mountain, there were none of his friends and
admirers who felt that the distinction was undeserved.
President Butcher is frequently called into the councils of the
party whenever there are resolutions to be drawn up or statements of
philosophic principle to be issued. He is in great demand also as
chairman of state conventions, which his rare academic distinction
lifts far above the usual level of such affairs. It was at one of
these conventions that he made the memorable speech in which he
drew the analogy between the immutability of Anglo-Saxon political
institutions and the multiplication table. To the applause of the keen
and hard-headed business men and lawyers who sat as delegates under
him, he scored with matchless satire the idea of progress in politics,
and demonstrated to their complete satisfaction that it was as absurd
to tinker with the fundamentals of our political system as it would be
to construct a new arithmetic. In such characteristic wisdom we have
the intellectual caliber of the man.
This brilliant and profound address came only as the fruit of a
lifetime of thought on political philosophy. President Butchers
treatise on “Why We Should Never Change Any Form of Government” has
been worth more to thoughtful men than thousands of sermons on civic
righteousness. No one who has ever heard President Butchers rotund
voice discuss in a public address “those ideas and practices which have
been tried and tested by a thousand years of experience” will ever
allow his mind to dwell again on the progressive and disintegrating
tendencies of the day, nor will he have the heart again to challenge on
any subject the “decent respect for the common opinions of mankind.”
President Butchers social philosophy is as sound as his political.
The flexibility of his mind is shown in the fact that, although an
immutabilist in politics, he is a staunch Darwinian in sociology.
Himself triumphantly fit, he never wearies of expressing his robust
contempt for the unfit who encumber the earth. His essay on “The
Insurrection of the Maladjusted” is already a classic in American
literature. The trenchant attack on modern social movements as the
impudent revolt of the unfit against those who, by their personal
merits and industry, have, like himself, achieved success, has been
a grateful bulwark to thousands who might otherwise have been swept
sentimentally from their moorings by those false guides who erect their
own weakness and failure into a criticism of society.
Dr. Butchers literary eminence has not only won him a chair in the
American Academy of All the Arts, Sciences, and Philosophies, but has
made him almost as well known abroad as at home. He has lectured
before the learned societies of Lisbon on “The American at Home,” and
he has a wide circle of acquaintances in every capital in Europe. Most
of the foreign universities have awarded him honorary degrees. In spite
of his stout Americanism, Dr. Butcher has one of the most cosmopolitan
of minds. His essay on “The Cosmopolitan Intellect” has been translated
into every civilized language. With his admired friend, Owen Griffith,
he has collaborated in the latters endeavor to beat the swords of
industrial exploitation into the ploughshares of universal peace. He
has served in numerous capacities on Griffiths many peace boards and
foundations, and has advised him widely and well how to distribute his
millions so as to prevent the recurrence of war in future centuries.
Let it not be thought that, in recounting President Butchers public
life and services, I am minimizing his distinction as a university
administrator. As executive of one of the largest universities in
America, he has raised the position of college president to a dignity
surpassed by scarcely any office except President of the United States.
The splendid $125,000 mansion which President Butcher had the trustees
of Pluribus build for him on the heights overlooking the city, where
he entertains distinguished foreign guests with all the pomp worthy
of his high office, is the precise measure both of the majesty with
which he has endowed the hitherto relatively humble position, and the
appreciation of a grateful university. The relations between President
Butcher and the trustees of Pluribus have always been of the most
beautiful nature. The warm and profound intellectual sympathy which
he feels for the methods and practices of the financial and corporate
world, and the extensive personal affiliations he has formed with its
leaders, have made it possible to leave in his hands a large measure of
absolute authority. Huge endowments have made Pluribus under President
Butchers rule one of the wealthiest of our higher institutions of
learning. With a rare intuitive response to the spirit of the time, the
President has labored to make it the biggest and most comprehensive of
its kind. Already its schools are numbered by the dozens, its buildings
by the scores, its instructors by the hundreds, its students by the
thousands, its income by the millions, and its possessions by the tens
of millions.
None who have seen President Butcher in the commencement exercises
of Pluribus can ever forget the impressiveness of the spectacle. His
resemblance to Henry VIII is more marked now that he has donned the
crimson gown and flat hat of the famous English university which gave
him the degree of LL.D. Seated in a high-backed chair--the historic
chair of the first colonial president of Pluribus--surrounded by tier
upon tier of his retinue of the thousand professors of the university,
President Alexander Mackintosh Butcher presents the degrees, and in his
emphatic voice warns the five thousand graduates before him against
everything new, everything untried, everything untested.
Only one office could tempt President Butcher from his high estate. Yet
even those enthusiastic alumni and those devoted professors who long
to see him President of the United States have little hope of tempting
him from his duties to his alma mater. Having set his hand to the
plough, he must see Pluribus through her harvest season, and may God
prosper the work! So, beloved of all, alumni and instructors alike, the
idol of the undergraduates, a national oracle of Prosperity and Peace,
President Butcher passes to a green old age, a truly Olympian figure of
the time.
I read with ever-increasing wonder the guarded defenses and discreet
apologies for the older generation which keep filtering through
the essays of the _Atlantic_. I can even seem to detect a growing
decision of tone, a definite assurance of conviction, which seems to
imply that a rally has been undertaken against the accusations which
the younger generation, in its self-assurance, its irreverence for
the old conventions and moralities, its passion for the novel and
startling, seemed to be bringing against them. The first faint twinges
of conscience felt by the older generation have given place to renewed
homily. There is an evident anxiety to get itself put on record as
perfectly satisfied with its world, and desirous that its sons and
daughters should learn anew of those peculiar beauties in which it has
lived. Swept off its feet by the call to social service and social
reform, it is slowly regaining its foundation, and, slightly flushed,
and with garments somewhat awry, it proclaims again its belief in the
eternal verities of Protestant religion and conventional New England
morality.
It is always an encouraging sign when people are rendered
self-conscious and are forced to examine the basis of their ideals. The
demand that they explain them to skeptics always makes for clarity.
When the older generation is put on the defensive, it must first
discover what convictions it has, and then sharpen them to their finest
point in order to present them convincingly. There are always too many
unquestioned things in the world, and for a person or class to have to
scurry about to find reasons for its prejudices is about as healthy
an exercise as one could wish for either of them. To be sure, the
reasons are rarely any more than _ex post facto_ excuses,--supports
and justifications for the prejudices rather than the causes thereof.
Reason itself is very seldom more than that. The important point is
that one should feel the need of a reason. This always indicates that
something has begun to slide, that the world is no longer so secure as
it was, that obvious truths no longer are obvious, that the world has
begun to bristle with question marks.
One of the basic grievances of this older generation against the
younger of to-day, with its social agitation, its religious heresy,
its presumptive individuality, its economic restlessness, is that
all this makes it uncomfortable. When you have found growing older
to be a process of the reconciliation of the spirit to life, it is
decidedly disconcerting to have some youngster come along and point
out the irreconcilable things in the universe. Just as you have made
a tacit agreement to call certain things non-existent, it is highly
discommoding to have somebody shout with strident tones that they are
very real and significant. When, after much struggling and compromise,
you have got your world clamped down, it is discouraging to have a
gale arise which threatens to blow over all your structure. Through so
much of the current writing runs this quiet note of disapprobation.
These agnostic professors who unsettle the faith of our youth, these
“intellectuals who stick a finger in everybodys pie in the name of
social justice,” these sensation-mongers who unveil great masses of
political and social corruption, these remorseless scientists who would
reveal so many of our reticences--why cant they let us alone? Can they
not see that Gods in his heaven, alls right with the world?
Now I know this older generation which doth protest so much. I have
lived with it for the last fifteen years, ever since I began to wonder
whether all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. I
was educated by it, grew up with it. I doubt if any generation ever
had a more docile pupil than I. What they taught me, I find they
still believe, or at least so many of them as have not gone over to
the enemy, or been captured by the militant youth of to-day. Or, as
seems rather likely, they no longer precisely believe, but they want
their own arguments to convince themselves. It is probable that when
we really believe a thing with all our hearts, we do not attempt to
justify it. Justification comes only when we are beginning to doubt it.
By this older generation I mean, of course, the mothers and fathers and
uncles and aunts of the youth of both sexes between twenty and thirty
who are beginning their professional or business life. And I refer
of course to the comfortable or fairly comfortable American middle
class. Now this older generation has had a religion, a metaphysics,
an ethics, and a political and social philosophy, which have reigned
practically undisputed until the appearance of the present generation.
It has at least never felt called upon to justify itself. It has never
been directly challenged, as it is to-day. In order to localize this
generation still further, we must see it in its typical setting of
the small town or city, clustered about the institutions of church
and family. If we have any society which can be called “American,” it
is this society. Its psychology is American psychology; its soul is
Americas soul.
This older generation, which I have known so well for fifteen years,
has a religion which is on the whole as pleasant and easy as could
be devised. Though its members are the descendants of the stern and
rugged old Puritans, who wrestled with the devil and stripped their
world of all that might seduce them from the awful service of God,
they have succeeded in straining away by a long process all the
repellent attitudes in the old philosophy of life. It is unfair to
say that the older generation believe in dogmas and creeds. It would
be more accurate to say that it does not disbelieve. It retains them
as a sort of guaranty of the stability of the faith, but leaves them
rather severely alone. It does not even make more than feeble efforts
to reinterpret them in the light of modern knowledge. They are useless,
but necessary.
The foundation of this religion may be religious, but the
superstructure is almost entirely ethical. Most sermons of to-day are
little more than pious exhortations to good conduct. By good conduct
is meant that sort of action which will least disturb the normal
routine of modern middle-class life: common honesty in business life,
faithfulness to duty, ambition in business and profession, filial
obligation, the use of talents, and always and everywhere simple human
kindness and love. The old Puritan ethics, which saw in the least issue
of conduct a struggle between God and the devil, has become a mere code
for facilitating the daily friction of conventional life.
Now one would indeed be churlish to find fault with this devout belief
in simple goodness, which characterizes the older generation. It is
only when these humble virtues are raised up into an all-inclusive
program for social reform and into a philosophy of life, that one
begins to question, and to feel afar the deep hostility of the older
generation to the new faith.
Simple kindness, common honesty, filial obedience, it is evidently
still felt, will solve all the difficulties of personal and social
life. The most popular novels of the day are those in which the
characters do the most good to each other. The enormous success with
the older generation of _The Inside of the Cup_, _Queed_, and _V.
V.s Eyes_, is based primarily on the fact that these books represent
a sublimated form of the good old American melodramatic moral sense.
And now comes along Mr. Gerald Stanley Lee with his _Crowds_,--what a
funny, individualized, personal-responsibility crowd he gives us, to
be sure,--and his panacea for modern social ills by the old solution
of applied personal virtue. Never a word about removing the barriers
of caste and race and economic inequality, but only an urging to step
over them. Never a trumpet-call to level the ramparts of privilege,
or build up the heights of opportunity, but only an appeal to extend
the charitable hand from the ramparts of heaven, or offer the kindly
patronage to the less fortunate, or--most dazzling of all--throw
away, in a frenzy of abandonment, life and fortune. Not to construct
a business organization where dishonesty would be meaningless, but to
be utopianly honest against the business world. In other words, the
older generation believes in getting all the luxury of the virtue of
goodness, while conserving all the advantages of being in a vicious
society.
If there is any one characteristic which distinguishes the older
generation, it is this belief that social ills may be cured by personal
virtue. Its highest moral ideals are sacrifice and service. But the
older generation can never see how intensely selfish these ideals are,
in the most complete sense of the word selfish. What they mean always
is, “I sacrifice myself for you,” “I serve you,” not, “We coöperate
in working ceaselessly toward an ideal where all may be free and none
may be served or serve.” These ideals of sacrifice and service are
utterly selfish, because they take account only of the satisfaction
and moral consolidation of the doer. They enhance his moral value;
but what of the person who is served or sacrificed for? What of the
person who is done good to? If the feelings of sacrifice and service
were in any sense altruistic, the moral enhancement of the receiver
would be the object sought. But can it not be said that for every
individual virtuous merit secured by an act of sacrifice or service
on the part of the doer, there is a corresponding depression on the
part of the receiver? Do we not universally recognize this by calling
a person who is not conscious of this depression, a parasite, and the
person who is no longer capable of depression, a pauper? It is exactly
those free gifts, such as schools, libraries, and so forth, which are
impersonal or social, that we can accept gratefully and gladly; and it
is exactly because the ministrations of a Charity Organization Society
are impersonal and businesslike that they can be received willingly and
without moral depression by the poor.
The ideal of duty is equally open to attack. The great complaint of
the younger against the older generation has to do with the rigidity
of the social relationships into which the younger find themselves
born. The world seems to be full of what may be called canalized
emotions. One is “supposed” to love ones aunt or ones grandfather
in a certain definite way, at the risk of being “unnatural.” One gets
almost a sense of the quantitative measurement of emotion. Perhaps the
greatest tragedy of family life is the useless energy that is expended
by the dutiful in keeping these artificial channels open, and the
correct amount of current running. It is exactly this that produces
most infallibly the rebellion of the younger generation. To hear that
one ought to love this or that person; or to hear loyalty spoken of, as
the older generation so often speaks of it, as if it consisted in an
allegiance to something which one no longer believes in,--this is what
soonest liberates those forces of madness and revolt which bewilder
spiritual teachers and guides. It is those dry channels of duty and
obligation through which no living waters of emotion flow that it is
the ideal of the younger generation to break up. They will have no
network of emotional canals which are not brimming, no duties which are
not equally loves.
But when they are loves, you have duty no longer meaning very much.
Duty, like sacrifice and service, always implies a personal relation
of individuals. You are always doing your duty to somebody or
something. Always the taint of inequality comes in. You are morally
superior to the person who has duty done to him. If that duty is not
filled with good-will and desire, it is morally hateful, or at very
best, a necessary evil,--one of those compromises with the world which
must be made in order to get through it at all. But duty without
good-will is a compromise with our present state of inequality, and
to raise duty to the level of a virtue is to consecrate that state of
inequality forevermore.
It is the same thing with service. The older generation has attempted
an insidious compromise with the new social democracy by combining the
words “social” and “service.” Under cover of the ideal of service it
tries to appropriate to itself the glory of social work, and succeeds
in almost convincing itself and the world that its Christianity has
always held the same ideal. The faithful are urged to extend their
activities. The assumption is that, by doing good to more individuals,
you are thereby becoming social. But to speak of “social democracy,”
which of course means a freely coöperating, freely reciprocating
society of equals, and “service,” together, is a contradiction of
terms. For, when you serve people or do good to them, you thereby
render yourself unequal with them. You insult the democratic ideal.
If the service is compulsory, it is menial and you are inferior. If
voluntary, you are superior. The difference, however, is only academic.
The entire Christian scheme is a clever but unsuccessful attempt to
cure the evils of inequality by transposing the values. The slave
serves gladly instead of servilely. That is, he turns his master
into a slave. That is why good Christian people can never get over
the idea that Socialism means simply the triumph of one class over
another. To-day the proletarian is down, the capitalist up. To-morrow
the proletarian will be up and the capitalist down. To pull down the
mighty from their seats and exalt them of low degree is the highest
pitch to which Christian ethics ever attained. The failure of the older
generation to recognize a higher ethic, the ethic of democracy, is the
cause of all the trouble.
The notorious Victorian era, which in its secret heart this older
generation still admires so much, accentuated all the latent
individualism of Christian ethics, and produced a code which, without
the rebellion of the younger generation, would have spiritually
guaranteed forever all moral caste divisions and inequalities of
modern society. The Protestant Church, in which this exaggerated ethic
was enshrined, is now paying heavily the price of this debauch of
ethical power. Its rapidly declining numbers show that human nature
has an invincible objection to being individually saved. The Catholic
Church, which saves men as members of the Beloved Community, and not
as individuals, flourishes. When one is saved by Catholicism, one
becomes a democrat, and not a spiritual snob and aristocrat, as one
does through Calvinism. The older generation can never understand that
superb loyalty which is loyalty to a community,--a loyalty which,
paradoxical as it may seem, nourishes the true social personality in
proportion as the individual sense is lessened. The Protestant Church
in its tenacious devotion to the personal ideal of a Divine Master--the
highest and most popular Christian ideal of to-day--shows how very far
it still is away from the ideals and ethics of a social democracy, a
life lived in the Beloved Community.
The sense of self-respect is the very keystone of the personality in
whose defence all this individualistic philosophy has been carefully
built up. The Christian virtues date from ages when there was a vastly
greater number of morally depressed people than there is now. The
tenacious survival of these virtues can be due only to the fact that
they were valuable to the moral prestige of some class. Our older
generation, with its emphasis on duty, sacrifice, and service, shows us
very clearly what those interests were. I deliberately accuse the older
generation of conserving and greatly strengthening these ideals, as a
defensive measure. Morals are always the product of a situation; they
reflect a certain organization of human relations which some class or
group wishes to preserve. A moral code or set of ideals is always the
invisible spiritual sign of a visible social grace. In an effort to
retain the _status quo_ of that world of inequalities and conventions
in which they most comfortably and prosperously live, the older
generation has stamped, through all its agencies of family, church and
school, upon the younger generation, just those seductive ideals which
would preserve its position. These old virtues upon which, however, the
younger generation is already making guerilla warfare are simply the
moral support with which the older generation buttresses its social
situation.
The natural barriers and prejudices by which our elders are cut
off from a freely flowing democracy are thus given a spiritual
justification, and there is added for our elders the almost sensual
luxury of leaping, by free grace, the barriers and giving themselves
away. But the price has to be paid. Just as profits, in the socialist
philosophy, are taken to be an abstraction from wages, through the
economic power which one class has over another, so the virtues of the
older generation may be said to be an abstraction from the virtue of
other classes less favorably situated from a moral or personal point of
view. Their swollen self-respect is at the expense of others.
How well we know the type of man in the older generation who has been
doing good all his life! How his personality has thriven on it! How he
has ceaselessly been storing away moral fat in every cranny of his
soul! His goodness has been meat to him. The need and depression of
other people has been, all unconsciously to him, the air which he has
breathed. Without their compensating misfortune or sin, his goodness
would have wilted and died. If good people would earnestly set to
work to make the world uniformly healthy, courageous, beautiful, and
prosperous, the field of their vocation would be constantly limited,
and finally destroyed. That they so stoutly resist all philosophies
and movements which have these ends primarily in view is convincing
evidence of the fierce and jealous egoism which animates their so
plausibly altruistic spirit. One suspects that the older generation
does not want its vocation destroyed. It takes an heroic type of
goodness to undermine all the foundations on which our virtue rests.
If then I object to the ethical philosophy of the older generation on
the ground that it is too individualistic, and, under the pretense
of altruism, too egoistic, I object to its general intellectuality
as not individual enough. Intellectually the older generation seems
to me to lead far too vegetative a life. It may be that this life
has been lived on the heights, that these souls have passed through
fires and glories, but there is generally too little objective
evidence of this subjective fact. If the intuition which accompanies
experience has verified all the data regarding God, the soul, the
family, and so forth,--to quote one of the staunchest defenders of the
generation,--this verification seems to have been obtained rather that
the issues might be promptly disposed of and forgotten. Certainly the
older generation is rarely interested in the profounder issues of life.
It never speaks of death,--the suggestion makes it uncomfortable. It
shies in panic at hints of sex-issues. It seems resolute to keep life
on as objective a plane as possible. It is no longer curious about
the motives and feelings of people. It seems singularly to lack the
psychological sense. If it gossips, it recounts actions, effects; it
rarely seeks to interpret. It tends more and more to treat human beings
as moving masses of matter instead of as personalities filled with
potent influence, or as absorbingly interesting social types, as I am
sure the younger generation does.
The older generation seems no longer to generalize, although it
gives every evidence of having once prodigiously generalized, for
its world is all hardened and definite. There are the good and the
criminal, and the poor, the people who can be called nice, and the
ordinary people. The world is already plotted out. Now I am sure
that the generalizations of the truly philosophical mind are very
fluid and ephemeral. They are no sooner made than the mind sees their
insufficiency and has to break them up. A new cutting is made, only in
turn to be shaken and rearranged. This keeps the philosopher thinking
all the time, and it makes his world a very uncertain place. But he
at least runs no risk of hardening, and he has his eyes open to most
experience.
I am often impressed with the fact that the older generation has grown
weary of thinking. It has simply put up the bars in its intellectual
shop-windows and gone off home to rest. It may well be that this is
because it has felt so much sorrow that it does not want to talk about
sorrow, or so much love that to interpret love tires it, or repulsed
so many rude blows of destiny that it has no interest in speaking of
destiny. Its flame may be low for the very reason that it has burned
so intensely. But how many of the younger generation would eagerly
long for such interpretations if the older would only reveal them!
And how little plausible is that experience when it is occasionally
interpreted! No, enthusiasm, passion for ideas, sensuality, religious
fervor,--all the heated weapons with which the younger generation
attacks the world, seem only to make the older generation uneasy. The
spirit, in becoming reconciled to life, has lost life itself.
As I see the older generation going through its daily round of
business, church, and family life, I cannot help feeling that its
influence is profoundly pernicious. It has signally failed to broaden
its institutions for the larger horizon of the time. The church remains
a private club of comfortable middle-class families, while outside
there grows up without spiritual inspiration a heterogeneous mass of
people without ties, roots, or principles. The town changes from a
village to an industrial center, and church and school go through their
time-honored and listless motions. The world widens, society expands,
formidable crises appear, but the older generation does not broaden, or
if it does, the broadening is in no adequate proportion to our needs.
The older generation still uses the old ideas for the new problem.
Whatever new wine it finds must be poured into the old bottles.
Where are the leaders among the older generation in America who,
with luminous faith and intelligence, are rallying around them the
disintegrated numbers of idealistic youth, as Bergson and Barrès
and Jaurès have done in France? A few years ago there seemed to be
a promise of a forward movement toward Democracy, led by embattled
veterans in a war against privilege. But how soon the older generation
became wearied in the march! What is left now of that shining army and
its leader? Must the younger generation eternally wait for the sign?
The answer is, of course, that it will not wait. It must shoulder
the gigantic task of putting into practice its ideals and
revolutionary points of view as wholeheartedly and successfully as
our great-grandfathers applied theirs and tightened the philosophy
of life which imprisons the older generation. The shuddering fear
that we in turn may become weary, complacent, evasive, should be the
best preventive of that stagnation. We shall never have done looking
for the miracle, that it shall be given us to lighten, cheer, and
purify our “younger generation,” even as our older has depressed and
disintegrated us.
No Easterner, born forlornly within the sphere of New York, Boston, or
Philadelphia, can pass very far beyond the Alleghanies without feeling
that American civilization is here found in the full tide of believing
in itself. The flat countryside looks more ordered, more farmlike; the
Main Streets that flash by the car-windows somehow look more robust and
communal. There may be no less litter and scrubbiness; the clustered
houses of the towns may look even more flimsy, undistinguished,
well-worn; but it is a litter of aspiring order, a chaos which the
people are insensitive to because they are living in the light of a
hopeful future. The East has pretty much abandoned itself to the tides
of immigration and industrial change which have overwhelmed it: no one
really believes that anything startling will be done to bring about a
new heaven and a new earth. But the intelligence of the West seems to
live in apocalyptic sociological--not socialistic, however--dreams.
Architects and business men combine half-heartedly to “save New York”
from the horrors of the Jewish clothing-trade invasion, but Chicago
draws great maps and sketches of a city-planning that shall make it not
only habitable but radiant and palatial.
Hope has not vanished from the East, but it has long since ceased
to be our daily diet. Europe has infected us perhaps with some of
its world-weariness. The East produces more skeptics and spiritual
malcontents than the West. For the Middle West seems to have
accomplished most of the things, industrial and political, that the
East has been trying to do, and it has done them better. The Middle
West is the apotheosis of American civilization, and like all successes
it is in no mood to be very critical of itself or very examinatory
as to the anatomy and physiology of its social being. No Easterner
with Meredith Nicholsons human and literary experience would write
so complacently and cheerfully about his part of the country as Mr.
Nicholson writes about “The Valley of Democracy.” His self-confidence
is the very voice of the Middle West, telling us what it thinks of
itself. This, we say as we read, must be the inner candor which goes
with the West that we see with our eyes. So we like Mr. Nicholsons
articles not so much for the information they give us as for the
attitudes they let slip, the unconscious revelations of what the people
he is talking for think important.
It is not a book of justification, although he would rather anxiously
have us take not too seriously the political vagaries like Bryanism and
Progressivism. And he wishes us to miss none of the symphony orchestras
and art institutes that evidently now begin to grow like grasshoppers
on the prairies. He treats himself rather as an expositor, and he
is explicitly informational, almost as if for a foreign country. He
sometimes has an amusing air of having hastily read up and investigated
Western wonders and significances that have been not only common
material in the Eastern magazines, but matter of despairing admiration
on the part of those of us who are general improvers of mankind. He
is naïve about the greatness of Chicago, the vastness of agricultural
production, the ravages of culture among the middle classes. He is
almost the professional Westerner showing off his prize human stock.
Mr. Nicholson does well to begin with the folksiness of the West. No
one who has experienced that fine open friendliness of the prosperous
Middle Westerner, that pleasant awareness of the alert and beneficent
world we live in, can deny that the Middle West is quite justified in
thinking of itself as the real heart of the nation. That belief in the
ultimate good sense, breadth of vision, and devotion to the common
good, of the “folks back home,” is in itself a guaranty of social
stability and of a prosperity which implies that things will never be
any different except as they slowly improve. Who can say that we have
no Gemüthlichkeit in America, when he runs up against this warm social
mixability which goes so far to compensate for the lack of intellectual
_nuances_ and spontaneous artistic sensibilities?
Of course the Middle West has to pay for its social responsiveness
in a failure to create, at least in this day and generation, very
vigorous and diverse spiritual types. An excessive amiability, a genius
for adaptability will, in the end, put a premium on conformity. The
Westerner sincerely believes that he is more averse to conventionality
than the Easterner, but the latter does not find him so. The heretic
seems to have a much harder time of it in the West. Classes and
attitudes that have offended against the “folks” codes may be actually
outlawed. When there are acute differences of opinion, as in the war,
society splits into bitter and irreconcilable camps, whereas in the
East the undesirables have been allowed to shade off towards limbo
in gradual degrees. When hatred and malice, too long starved by too
much “niceness,” do break out from the natural man, they may produce
those waves of persecution and vindictiveness which, coming from a so
recently pacifist West, astonished an East that was no less densely
saturated with aliens but was more conversant with the feeling that it
takes all kinds of people to make a world. Folksiness evidently has its
dark underlining in a tendency to be stampeded by herd-emotion. “Social
conscience” may become the duty to follow what the mob demands, and
democracy may come to mean that the individual feels himself somehow
expressed--his private tastes and intelligence--in whatever the crowd
chooses to do.
I have followed Mr. Nicholson in his speaking of the Middle West as
if he thought of the region as a unit. He does speak as if he did,
but he does not really mean it. Much as he would like to believe in
the substantial equality of the people in the Valley of Democracy, he
cannot help letting us see that it is but one class that he has in
mind--his own, the prosperous people of the towns. He protests against
their being scornfully waved aside as bourgeoisie. “They constitute
the most interesting and admirable of our social strata.” And he is
quite right. Certainly this stratum is by far the most admirable of all
the middle classes of the world. It is true that “nowhere else have
comfort, opportunity, and aspiration produced the same combination.” He
marvels at the numbers of homes in the cities that cannot imaginably
be supported on less than five thousand a year. And it is these homes,
and their slightly more impoverished neighbors, who are for him the
“folks,” the incarnate Middle West. The proletarian does not exist for
him. The working-classes are merely so much cement, filling in the
bricks of the temple--or, better, folks in embryo, potential owners of
bungalows on pleasant suburban streets. Mr. Nicholsons enthusiasm is
for the college-girl wife, who raises babies, attends womens clubs,
and is not afraid to dispense with the unattainable servant. It is
for the good-natured and public-spirited business man, who goes into
politics because politics in the Middle West has always been concerned
with the prosperity of the business community. But about the economic
foundation of this class Mr. Nicholson sounds as innocent as a babe.
Take his attitude towards the farmer. You gather from these pages
that in the Middle West the farmer is a somewhat unfortunate anomaly,
a shadow on the bright scene. Farming is scarcely even a respectable
profession: “the great-grandchildren of the Middle Western pioneers
are not easily persuaded that farming is an honorable calling”! He
hints darkly at a decay in fiber. Only one chapter out of six is given
to the farmer, and that is largely occupied with the exertions of
state agencies, universities, to lift him out of his ignorance and
selfishness. The average farmer has few of the admirable qualities
of the Valley of Democracy. He is not “folksy”; he is suspicious,
conservative, somewhat embittered, little given to coöperation;
he even needed prodding with his Liberty bonds. In Mr. Nicholsons
pages the farmer becomes a huge problem which lies on the brain and
conscience of a Middle West that can only act towards him in its best
moments like a sort of benevolent Charity Organization Society. “To
the average urban citizen,” says Mr. Nicholson, “farming is something
remote and uninteresting, carried on by men he never meets in regions
that he only observes hastily from a speeding automobile or the window
of a limited train.”
It would take whole volumes to develop the implications of that
sentence. Remember that that urban citizen is Mr. Nicholsons Middle
West, and that the farmer comprises the huge bulk of the population.
Is this not interesting, the attitude of the prosperous minority of an
urban minority--a small but significant class which has in its hands
all the non-productive business and political power--towards the great
productive mass of the people? Could class division be revealed in
plainer terms? This Middle West of Mr. Nicholsons class sees itself
as not only innocent of exploitation, but full of all the personal and
social virtues besides. But does the farmer see this class in this
light? He does not. And Mr. Veblen has given us in one of his books an
analysis of this society which may explain why: “The American country
town and small city,” he says, “is a business community, that is to
say it lives for and by business traffic, primarily of a merchandising
sort.... Municipal politics is conducted as in some sort a public
or overt extension of that private or covert organization of local
interests that watches over the joint pecuniary benefit of the local
businessmen. It is a means ... of safe-guarding the local business
community against interlopers and against any evasive tactics on the
part of the country population that serves as a host.... The country
town is a product and exponent of the American land system. In its
beginning it is located and developed as an enterprise of speculation
in land values; that is to say, it is a businesslike endeavor to get
something for nothing by engrossing as much as may be of the increment
of land values due to the increase of population and the settlement
and cultivation of the adjacent agricultural area. It never (hitherto)
loses this character of real-estate speculation. This affords a common
bond and a common ground of pecuniary interest, which commonly
masquerades under the name of public patriotism, public spirit, civic
pride, and the like.”
In other words, Town, in the traditional American scheme of things,
is shown charging Country all the traffic will bear. It would be hard
to find a member of Mr. Nicholsons Middle West--that minority urban
class--who was not owing his prosperity to some form of industrial
or real-estate speculation, of brokerage business enterprise, or
landlordism. This class likes to say sometimes that it is “carrying
the farmer.” It would be more like the truth to say that the farmer is
carrying this class. Country ultimately has to support Town; and Town,
by holding control of the channels of credit and market, can make the
farmer pay up to the hilt for the privilege of selling it his product.
And does. When the farmers, getting a sense of the true workings of the
society they live in, combine in a Non-Partisan League to control the
organism of market and credit, they find they have a bitter class war
on their hands. And the authentic voice of Mr. Nicholson here scolds
them roundly for their restlessness and sedition. In this ferocious
reaction of Town against Countrys socialistic efforts to give itself
economic autonomy, we get the betrayal of the social malaise of the
Middle West, a confession of the cleavage of latent class conflict in
a society as exploitative, as steeply tilted, as tragically extreme
in its poles of well-being, as any other modern society based on the
economic absolutism of property.
A large part of the hopefulness, the spiritual comfort of the Middle
West, of its sturdy belief in itself, must be based on the inflexible
reluctance of its intelligentsia to any such set of ideas. However
thoroughly Marxian ideas may have saturated the thought of Europe
and become the intellectual explosive of social change, the Middle
West, as in this book, persists in its robust resistance to any such
analysis or self-knowledge. It is not that Mr. Nicholsons attitudes
are not true. It is that they are so very much less than the whole
truth. They need to be supplemented by analysis set in the terms in
which the progressive minds of the rest of the world are thinking.
The intelligent Middle West needs to sacrifice a certain amount of
complacency in exchange for an understanding of the structure of
its own society. It would then realize that to read “The Valley of
Democracy” in conjunction with pages 315-323 of Veblens “Imperial
Germany and the Industrial Revolution” is to experience one of the most
piquant intellectual adventures granted to the current mind.
ERNEST: OR, PARENT FOR A DAY
I had been talking rather loosely about the bringing-up of children.
They had been lately appearing to me in the guise of infinitely
prevalent little beings who impressed themselves almost too vividly
upon ones consciousness. My summer vacation I had passed in a
household where a vivacious little boy of two years and a solemn little
boy of six months had turned their mother into a household slave. I had
seen walks, conversations, luncheons, and all the amenities of summer
civilized life, shot to pieces by the indomitable need of imperious
little children to be taken care of. Little boys who came running at
you smiling, stubbed their toes, and were instantly transformed into
wailing inconsolables; babies who woke importunately at ten oclock in
the evening, and had to be brought down warm and blinking before the
fire; human beings who were not self-regulating, but to whom every
hard surface, every protuberance, was a menace to happiness, and in
whom every want and sensation was an order and claim upon somebody
else--these were new offerings to my smooth and independent existence.
They interested and perturbed me.
The older little boy, with his sunny luxuriance of hair and cheek,
was always on the point of saying something novel and disconcerting.
The baby, with his deep black eyes, seemed to be waiting silently and
in soft anticipation for life. He would look at you so calmly and yet
so eagerly, and give you a pleasant satisfaction that just your mere
presence, your form, your movement, were etching new little lines on
his cortex, sending new little shoots of feeling through his nerves.
You were being part of his education just by letting his consciousness
look at you. I liked particularly to hold my watch to his ear, and
see the sudden grave concentration of his face, as he called all his
mind to the judgment of this arresting phenomenon. I would love to
accost him as he lay murmuring in his carriage, and to check his little
breakings into tears by quick movements of my hands. He would watch me
intently for a while until the fact of his little restless woe would
come upon him again. I was challenged then to something more startling,
and the woe would disappear in little short gasps. But I would find
that he was subject to the law of diminishing returns. The moment would
arrive when the woe submerged everything in a wail, and his mother
would have to be called to nurse or coddle him in the magical motherly
way.
The baby I found perhaps more interesting than his little brother,
for the babys moods had more style to them. The brother could be
transformed from golden prattlingness to raging storm, with the most
disconcerting quickness. He could want the most irrational things with
an intensity that got itself expressed in hypnotic reiteration. Some
smoldering will-to-power in ones self told one that a child should
never be given the thing that he most wanted; and yet in five minutes
one would have given him ones soul, to be rid of the brazen rod which
he pounded through one. But I could not keep away from him. He and
his baby brother absorbed me, and when I contemplated their mothers
life, I had many a solemn sense of the arduousness of being a parent.
I thought of the long years ahead of them, and the incalculability of
their manifestations. I shuddered and remained, gloating, I am afraid,
a little over the opportunity of enjoyment without responsibility.
All these things I was recounting the other evening after dinner to a
group of friends who professionally look after the minds and bodies
of the neglected. I was explaining my absorption, and the perils
and merciless tyranny of the mothers life, and my thankfulness at
having been so much in, and yet so much not of, the child-world. I
was not responsible, and the policeman mother could be called in at
any time to soothe or to quell. I could always maintain the amused
aloofness which is my usual attitude toward children. And I made the
point that parenthood must become less arduous after the child is a
self-regulating little organism, and can be trusted not to commit
suicide inadvertently over every threshold, can feed himself, dress
himself, and take himself reasonably around. I even suggested unwarily
that after five or six the tyranny was much mitigated.
There was strong dissent. Just at that age, I was told, the real
responsibilities began. I was living in a fools paradise of
bachelordom if I thought that at six children were grown-up. One of the
women before the fire made it her business to get children adopted. I
had a sense of foreboding before she spoke. She promptly confirmed my
intuition by offering to endow me with an infant of six years, for a
day or for as long as I would take him. The hearty agreement of the
rest amazed and alarmed me. They seemed delighted at the thought of my
becoming parent for a day. I should have Ernest. They all knew Ernest;
and I should have him. They seemed to have no concern that he would not
survive my brief parenthood. It rather warmed and flattered me to think
that they trusted me.
I had a sense of being caught in an inescapable net, prisoner of my own
theories. If children of six were no longer tyrants, the possession
of Ernest would not interfere with my work or my life. I had spoken
confidently. I had a reputation among my friends of speaking eloquently
about “the child.” And I always find it almost impossible to resist the
offer of new experience. I hesitated and was lost. I even found myself
naming the day for Ernests momentary adoption. And during all that
week I found it increasingly impossible to forget him. The night before
Ernest was to come I told myself that I could not believe that this
perilous thing was about to happen to me. I made no preparations to
receive Ernest in my tiny bachelor apartment. I felt that I was in the
hands of fate.
I was not really surprised when fate knocked at the door next morning
in the person of my grinning friend, and swiftly left a well-bundled
little boy with me. I have rarely seen a young woman look as
maliciously happy as did his guide when she left, with the remark that
she couldnt possibly come for Ernest that evening, but would take him
at nine oclock on the morrow. My first quick resentment was stilled by
the thought that perhaps an official day was a day plus a night. But
Ernest loomed formidably at me. There would be problems of sleeping.
Was I a victim? Well, that is what parents were! They should not find
me weak.
Ernest expressed no aversion to staying with me. He was cheerful, a
little embarrassed, incurious. The removal of his hat disclosed a
Dutch-cut of yellow hair, blue eyes, many little freckles, and an
expression of slightly quizzical good-humor. I really had not had the
least conception how big a boy of six was likely to be, and I found
comfort in the evidence that he was big enough to be self-regulating,
and yet deliciously small enough to be watched over. He could be played
with, and without danger of breaking him.
Ernest sat passively on a chair and surveyed the room. I had thought a
little pedantically of exposing him to some Montessori apparatus. I had
got nothing, however. The room suddenly became very inane; the piano
a huge packing-box, the bookcases offensive, idiotic shelves. A silly
room to live in! A room practically useless for these new and major
purposes of life. I was ashamed of my surroundings, for I felt that
Ernest was surveying me with contempt and reproach.
It suddenly seemed as if little boys must like to look at pictures.
Ernest had clambered up into a big chair, and was sitting flattened
against its back, his legs sticking straight out in front of him, and
a look of mild lassitude on his face. He took with some alacrity the
illustrated newspaper supplement which I gave him, but my conscience
tortured me a little as to whether his interest was the desperate
one of demanding something for his mind to feed on, however arid it
might be, or whether it was a genuine æsthetic response. He gave all
the pictures exactly the same amount of time, rubbing his hand over
each to make sure that it was flat, and he showed no desire to talk
about anything he had seen. Since most of the pictures were of war,
my pacifist spirit rebelled against dwelling on them. His celerity
dismayed me. It became necessary to find more pictures. I had a sudden
horror of an afternoon of picture-books, each devoured in increasingly
accelerated fashion. How stupid seemed my rows of dully printed books!
Not one of them could disgorge a picture, no matter how hard you shook
it. Despair seized me when I found only a German handbook of Greek
sculpture, and another of Michelangelo. In hopeful trepidation I began
on them. I wondered how long they would last.
It was clearly an unfamiliar field to Ernest. My attempts to test his
classical knowledge were a failure. He recognized the Greeks as men
and women, but not as gods, and there were moments when I was afraid
he felt their nudity as indecent. He insisted on calling the Winged
Victory an angel. There had evidently been religion in Ernests career.
I told him that these were pictures of marble statues from Greece,
of gods and things, and I hurriedly sketched such myths as I could
remember in an attempt to overtake Ernests headlong rush of interest.
But he did not seem to listen, and he ended by calling every flowing
female form an angel. He laughed greatly at their missing arms and
heads. I do not think I quite impressed him with the Greek spirit.
On Michelangelo there was chance to test his Biblical background. He
proved never to have heard of David, and took the story I told him
with a little amused and incredulous chortle. Moses was new to him,
and I could not make him feel the majesty of the horns and beard.
When we came to the Sistine I felt the constraint of theology. Should
I point out to him God and Adam and Eve, and so perhaps fix in his
infant mind an ineradicable theological bias? Now I understand the
temptation which every parent must suffer, to dose his child with easy
mythology. Something urged me to say, Adam was the first man and Eve
was the first woman, and get the vague glow of having imparted godly
information. But I am glad that I had the strength sternly to refrain,
hoping that Ernest was too intellectually robust to be trifled with. I
confined myself to pointing out the sweep of clouds, the majesty of the
prophets, the cracks in the plaster, the mighty forms of the sibyls.
But with my last sibyl I was trapped. It smote my thought that there
were no more pictures. And Ernests passivity had changed. We were
sitting on the floor, and his limbs began to take on movement. He
crawled about, and I thought began to look menacingly at movable
objects on tables. My phobia of the combination of movable objects
and children returned. Parenthood suddenly seemed the most difficult
thing in the world. Ernest was not talking very much, and I doubted my
ability to hold him very long entranced in conversation. Imagination
came to my relief in the thought of a suburban errand. I remembered a
wonderful day when I myself had been taken by my uncle to the next town
on a journey--the long golden afternoon, the thundering expresses at
the station, the amazing watch which he had unaccountably presented me
with at the end of the day. Ernest should be taken to Brookfield.
Our lunch had to be taken at the railroad station. Ernest climbed with
much puffing up to the high stool by the lunch-counter, and sat there
unsteadily and triumphantly while I tried to think what little boys ate
for their lunch. My decision for scrambled eggs and a glass of milk was
unwise. The excitement of feeding scrambled eggs to a slippery little
boy on top of a high stool was full of incredible thrills. The business
of preventing a deluge of milk whenever Ernest touched his glass forced
me to an intellectual concentration which quite made me forget my own
eating. Ernest himself seemed in a state of measureless satisfaction;
but the dizzy way in which he brandished his fork, the hairbreadth
escape of those morsels of food as they passed over the abyss of his
lap, the new and strange impression of smearedness one got from his
face, kept me in a state of absorption until I found we had but one
minute to catch our train. With Ernest clutching a large buttered roll
which he had decently refused to relinquish, we rushed through the
gates.
When the candy-man came through the train, Ernest asked me in the most
detached tone in the world if I was going to buy any candy. And I asked
him with a similar dryness what his preferences in candy were. He
expressed a cool interest in lemon-drops. The marvelous way in which
Ernest did not eat those lemon-drops gave me a new admiration for his
self-control. He finished his buttered roll, gazed out of the window,
casually ate two or three lemon-drops, and then carefully closed
the box and put it in his pocket. I was almost jealous of Ernests
character. I recalled my incorrigible nibblings. I predicted for Ernest
a moral life.